The San Francisco District Attorney's Office on Thursday asked the California Supreme Court to review a recent ruling by an appeals court that abolished the practice of using large bail amounts to detain low-income defendants in state trial courts without giving them detention hearings.
The January ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco was prompted by the arrest and subsequent jailing of Kenneth Humphrey, 64, charged with robbery for allegedly following a neighbor into his Turk Street apartment, threatening him and stealing a small amount of cash and a bottle of cologne. Humphrey has languished in jail for nearly a year.
His bail had initially been set at $600,000 based on the state's bail schedule, but a judge eventually lowered it to $350,000 with the San Francisco public defender's office arguing that the initial bail was excessive and that Humphrey was not a public safety risk.
The appeals court found that Humphrey's ability to pay bail must be taken into account when setting bail. Setting bail higher than a person can afford effectively jails the defendant for being poor, the ruling concluded.
While San Francisco's District Attorney George Gascon has been in favor of changing the money bail system, Thursday's request, which Gascon sent in a letter, asks the Supreme Court to allow trial courts to consider public safety when setting bail for a defendant, which he says the new ruling does not make clear.
"I firmly believe that we need to move away from money bail and Humphrey was a step in that direction, but I'm asking the state Supreme Court to weigh in to ensure we move away from money bail safely," Gascon said in a statement. "There are offenders and offenses that represent too great a risk to public safety to be released, and yet they do not qualify for no bail pretrial detention under current law.
"What's more, pursuant to Humphrey, the court can't consider public safety when setting bail. We have tools that rely on data and science to help us determine who is a risk and who is not. When those tools indicate that someone is a risk to public safety the courts need to be able to factor that information into their custody decisions."
The district attorney's office currently uses the Public Safety Assessment tool, a research-based pre-trial risk assessment tool, designed to measure risk factors and to help judges in making release and detention decisions. The tool helps determine the likelihood of whether a defendant will commit a new crime, whether they will commit a new violent crime and whether they will fail to show up for their next court date.
"In San Francisco, we have made efforts to move away from monetary bail and toward decision-making based on the risk level of an individual. While these efforts are advancing a more equitable and indeed more effective pretrial release mechanism, there are still individuals whose risk is so high detention remains necessary to protect public safety. Yet, Humphrey left open an important issue directly related to a prosecutor or court's ability to protect public safety," Gascon's letter said.
"California desperately needs one consistent voice to address this extremely important issue that courts and prosecutors face on a daily basis. Accordingly, I respectfully request that this court exercise its independent authority to review the decision of the Court of Appeal," the letter said.