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Democrats & Progressives Say While Ending Cash Bail Is the Right Move, Risk Assessments Could Heighten The Risk of Racial Discrimination

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Christal Mims, Staff

In what once appeared to be clear cut, the decision to vote “yes” on Proposition 25 and end the cash bail system is now causing controversy amongst Democrats and progressives. While collectively agreeing that cash bail has harmed the Black community and other communities of color since its inception, some fear that the system set to replace it could be even more harmful.

Prop. 25 would make California the first state to end the use of the cash bail system. The system would then be replaced by risk assessments to decide whether a suspect should be granted a pre-trial release. The assessments would categorize the individual as either low risk, medium risk or high risk. 

Depending on the outcome, a suspect would either be released (low/medium risk), remain detained depending on the court’s ruling (medium risk) or remain in jail with the opportunity to argue their release in front of a judge (high risk).

Opponents fear that these risk assessments could heighten the risk of racial discrimination and bias and keep more people behind bars as they await trial.

“I can’t predict what will happen, but I can say that the system they’ve set up is going to allow for expanded incarceration and expanded pretrial supervision including electronic monitoring, all of which is going to lead to more incarceration,” said John Raphling, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles.

Judges will also be given a lot more control. People accused of lower-level felonies would go before a judge who could keep them in jail or put conditions on their release. The judge’s decision would be partially based on the results of a risk assessment tool that is designed to measure a person’s likelihood of re-offending or skipping out on court.

Each county would have the freedom to determine their own risk assessment tool. According to Rahpling, this freedom is too much.

“If you’re low risk, then (under Prop. 25) you’re likely to get out — but the judges can always override any decision of risk assessment,” he said. “In my research, I’ve found that they overwhelmingly override in favor of locking people up … and there’s real questions about the accuracy of those (risk assessments).”

Others think the assessments are worth giving a chance. Santa Barbara Probation Chief Tanja Heitman, whose county has been experimenting with alternatives to cash bail, thinks assessments can actually help reduce racial disparities.

“I think probation officers are just as likely to allow biases unintentionally to creep into their decision making if they don’t have an assessment tool to help guide them, if they don’t have an assessment tool to ground them,” she said.

Underprivileged, primarily Black and brown communities have suffered at the inequality the cash bail system encourages, with rich defendants automatically benefiting from the system. Supporters of the proposition believe the system is inherently racist and needs to end for that simple reason. 

“We need to stand behind our elected officials who have stepped up to end a predatory bail system that literally preys on poor people that are predominately Black and Brown. What we do know is that our county jails are full of poor Black and Brown people. We know that as a fact. It (Prop. 25) ends criminalizing poverty right now,” said Sam Lewis, the Executive Director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

Many also argue that while risk assessments may not be perfect, they can at least be reworked and tweaked to better serve the community, while the cash bail system leaves no room for improvement.


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