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California’s chief justice calls for end to cash bail

FILE - In this March 23, 2015, file photo, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye delivers her State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. California's top judge wants to do away with the state's cash bail system, which critics say keeps poor people behind bars while wealthier suspects can pay for their freedom. Cantil-Sakauye said Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, that the state should instead rely on risk assessments to determine whether defendants should be released. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement: ‘‘I support the conclusion that California’s current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety.”

SAN FRANCISCO — California’s top judge said Tuesday she wants to do away with the state’s cash bail system, adding a powerful voice to criticism that it keeps poor people behind bars while wealthier suspects can pay for their freedom.

The bold proposal endorsed by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye would instead rely on assessments of defendants’ flight risk and danger to the public to determine whether they should be released.

The proposals are contained in a report by a group of judges that concluded the state’s cash bail system ‘‘unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety’’ and ‘‘exacerbates socioeconomic disparities and racial bias.’’

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The changes would require legislative approval to go into law, and Cantil-Sakauye, appointed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the report should serve as a framework for discussions with Governor Jerry Brown and the Legislature.

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‘‘I support the conclusion that California’s current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety,’’ she said in a statement.

The proposal is likely to face opposition from the bail industry. Similar bail reform measures approved in New Jersey and New Mexico have faced lawsuits.

The centuries-old cash-bail system has become one of the flashpoints in the debate over equal justice.

Supporters of cash bail say it ensures people show up to court because they forfeit their money if they fail to appear.

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Jeff Clayton, executive director of the bail industry trade group, the American Bail Coalition, said states that have tried similar measures have seen defendants commit new crimes.

‘‘The system is continuing to release them,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s no monetary backstop.’’

Clayton also raised concerns about how much the reform proposal would cost California taxpayers. The judges’ report calls for a significant initial investment of resources for new judges, court staff and infrastructure to evaluate defendants for release, though it doesn’t give an exact figure.

Critics of cash bail argue that many poor defendants languish in jail for minor offenses while wealthy suspects accused of serious crimes can often post bail while awaiting trial. They say some of those people could also pose a risk to public safety.