VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. — Ventura County law enforcement leaders requested the state make changes to a temporary rule lowering bail during the pandemic, claiming its effect has increased certain crimes.
The COVID-19 outbreak has prompted several emergency rules from the California Judicial Council, the policy-making arm of the courts system, in order to limit the spread of the virus. The goal of the judicial council has been to balance public health concerns with the rights of people accused of crimes as courts across the state are largely shut down.
Local police have also done their part to reduce the jail population, where conditions are ripe for transmission. Among them include issuing citations then releasing those arrested at the scene, which can be done for certain misdemeanors.
Along those same lines, the judicial council approved an emergency rule April 6 lowering bail to $0 for most misdemeanors and some low-level felonies. It went into effect April 13 and so far leaders of Ventura County law enforcement have seen “serious, negative consequences,” of the rule, according to a letter sent to the judicial council May 4.
“While release on $0 bail was well intentioned, experience has shown unacceptable recidivism among those released under the (emergency bail schedule.) We believe a few revisions to the (schedule) will significantly enhance public safety while serving the laudable goal of protecting pre-trial defendants and jail personnel from COVID-19,” the letter states.
The letter was signed by the chiefs of the Simi Valley, Port Hueneme, Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Paula police departments. Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub and District Attorney Greg Totten also signed. Together they form the Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee.
On Friday, the judicial council responded in its own letter to the local committee’s concerns.
The judicial council pointed out that law enforcement can petition the court for bail enhancements if there’s a risk to public safety. The emergency rule made that clear, and it was a decision upheld recently by the 4th District Court of Appeal.
“The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s implementation plan, confirming the right and responsibility of local law enforcement to exercise this tool to protect the public,” the council responded.
It’s unclear if local law enforcement has sought bail enhancements.
THE DATA PRESENTED
Between March 22 and April 30, vehicle theft and vandalism have increased across the county compared to the same time period in 2019, the committee’s letter states. There were 17 more auto thefts, eight more incidents of felony vandalism and 29 more incidents of misdemeanor vandalism, local prosecutors said.
At least 400 people have been arrested in connection with offenses falling under the emergency bail amount since the rule took effect.
At least 34 of those, or about 8.5%, have been rearrested then released from jail, putting inmates and staff at risk, according to police’s letter.
Ventura County Public Defender Todd Howeth, whose office represents indigent people accused of crimes, said if you look at that from a different perspective less than 92% have not re-offended. Howeth’s agency represents the majority of people facing criminal charges in the county.
The sheriff has done a “remarkable job” reducing the jail population to protect both inmates and staff, Howeth said. Still, it’s the last place he’d want a loved one during the pandemic because those facilities aren’t really equipped for social distancing.
Additionally, recidivism existed long before the virus. There are also other factors at play. Many of the clients in the public defender’s office deal with mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness, Howeth said.
The temporary change to bail was made to “counterbalance” the other rules passed by the judicial council, which delay trials by months.
“The emergency bail schedule was conceived as a counterbalance to other emergency measures, including the dramatic extension of the right to a speedy trial,” Howeth said.
Local law enforcement leaders proposed a series of changes to the emergency bail rule in the letter to the judicial council.
The law enforcement committee suggested that eligibility for the $0 bail become contingent on law-abiding behavior. If a person is arrested for one of the qualifying offenses and released on $0 bail, they cannot be eligible again if re-arrested.
The other revision proposed includes making anyone with a conviction for a serious or violent felony in the past 10 years ineligible for the emergency bail if arrested.
Ventura County Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Buschow, a spokesman for the agency, said there are “no consequences” for these crimes as the rule currently stands. Under normal circumstances, a person’s bail amount doubles if they are re-arrested while released on bail.
Of the at least 34 people who were arrested after being released on $0 bail, three of them allegedly re-offended more than two times.
One person was arrested seven times between April 13 and May 2. The offenses included indecent exposure, public intoxication, attempted battery on a peace officer and drug-related charges, Buschow said.
The second person was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication four times between April 18 and May 1. The third person was arrested three times between April 13 and April 18 on suspicion of grand theft, malicious mischief and possession of dangerous drugs.
All of these arrests were made by the Ventura Police Department, which identified the trio as homeless. That’s one of the factors associated with recidivism, the public defender said.
Trespassing, battery, grand theft and evading are also among the repeated offenses, Buschow said. Given the increase in stolen vehicles, law enforcement leaders suggested that crime no longer qualify for $0 bail.
They also don’t think it’s necessary for this rule to extend 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency declaration ends.
With the courts mostly handling only emergency hearings, a backlog of cases in the Ventura County criminal justice system is expected when the pandemic is over.
Trials have been delayed across the state, meaning an accused person could be in custody for at least four months before they could challenge their arrest, Howeth said.
Downsizing the money bail system in California has been considered before the pandemic, Howeth said. Bail is supposed to be a means for people to get out of jail. The use of money as this mechanism can be discriminatory by race and income, he said.
“If they had the money, they’d be posting bail anyway,” Howeth said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service