Jail Classification and How it Relates to Bail

Statistics show that the majority of county jail inmates are individuals who are awaiting trial. Understanding how people are sorted, managed and classified within the jail system is an important step in determining why this is so. Furthermore, important bail decisions and determination are often made at the time of booking and classification. An explanation of the process seems a necessary starting point to further exploration into these subjects.

So imagine you have just been arrested by the San Jose police for some crime. For the sake of this hypothetical, let’s say you stole a garden gnome worth $145 from your old English teacher’s yard. When the police stop you, they catch you red-handed with the gnome. You are handcuffed and put into a police car, and you’re driven to the Main Jail where you go down a sinister-looking ramp to what is known as Lower Booking.

You are placed in a “tank,” a holding area where you and other arrestees are held while you wait your turn for processing. A pay phone hangs on the wall and advertisements for bail bond companies are posted conveniently close to it. Your bail amount will be based on a written schedule that assigns a dollar value to your charges. Many people choose to call one of the bail bond companies once they know their bail amount. If they are able to arrange for bail to be posted, they will be released. This can happen at any point in the process.

You do not have the money to post bail however, so you wait to be called. Your first stop is with a medical professional for a screening to determine if you are healthy, whether you have any communicable diseases and whether you need immediate care. During this screening, you will be asked if you suffer from any mental health issues and if you take any medications. Mental health problems are determined in several ways. Some are self-reported during this intake process. Others are inferred from the medications carried or reported as prescribed. Some are presumed from observations of aberrant behavior.

If it is determined that you do need some kind of medical care or isolation, you are sent to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC), which handles all of the county’s inmate medical needs. If you are not, you move on to the next phase of booking. Here, your belongings are inventoried and recorded. Your charges will be reviewed. It is at this point that people whose offenses allow them to be cited and released with a future court date are allowed to leave. Cite and release is an interesting subject but outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that these individuals may be cited and released at the scene, or brought in to Lower Booking and cited and released there.

You however are not released. Your booking photo and fingerprints will be taken. You will again be asked about your mental health. You will then be placed back in the tank, or in a separate holding cell if you are determined to need protective custody. This may be the case if you are a sex offender, associated with law enforcement (for example being a police officer, being related to one, or being an informant), or if you belong to a gang other than the one controlling the facility. Gangs control California prisons and jails. This is simply a reality of incarceration in the state and corrections officers work to house inmates safely to avoid conflicts.

Finally, you will be administered another medical screening and given a tuberculosis test. If this test is positive, you are placed in isolation and given a chest x-ray. You will not be placed in the general population if you are actively suffering from TB. The disease is a scourge of jails because of the close quarters and the risk of contagion. Luckily, you are not infected.

You will spend some three to five hours moving through these stages, collectively called “booking.” Part of that time is needed to process you. Part of it gives you time to calm down and allows any drugs or alcohol in your system to dissipate so you are able to fully participate in your one-on-one interviews with Pretrial Services and Inmate Classification.

Some of my colleagues will be expanding on the role of Pretrial Services (PTS). In the context of booking and classification, PTS keeps a clerk at the jail to interview incoming prisoners. The purpose of their questions is to determine whether you should be released on your Own Recognizance (O.R.). This is a pledge that you will return for your court date without having to pay money bail. If PTS decides to recommend O.R., it is then put to a judge who makes the final determination. Those who are given O.R. are released from custody.

You watch others leave but you have been rejected for O.R. You are still sitting in a tank. You are regretting your impulsive desire for garden gnomes but resolutely move on to your next stop. This is the classification interview.

You will be asked questions to determine what level of security you require. Do you have mental health issues? Do you belong to a gang? Do you have a prior criminal history? What are the charges against you? The intake officer will weigh your answers and, combined with the information gathered from the entire process you have been navigating, will determine your housing assignment.

Santa Clara has four levels of housing (PDF, see page 87), numbered one through four. Level One is minimum security, Level Two is medium, Level Three is medium-high and Level Four is maximum. Within those levels, there are a number of different types of beds available. For example, protective custody is available at all levels, as is an infirmary for those who are ill or who must remain isolated because of contagion.

If you are a Level One or Two inmate, you will be sent to the Elmwood complex in Milpitas. Level One inmates occupied 18.8% of the total available beds in 2014. (See above PDF, page 90). Level Two inmates occupied 55.4% of beds, the highest percentage during the same period. One special program offered at Elmwood allows low-risk, qualifying inmates for whom English is a second language (ESL) to be housed together so they can learn English as a group.

Level Three and Four inmates are housed in the Main Jail. The percentage of beds occupied in 2014 by these classifications was 9.9% and 15.8% respectively. Additionally, those suffering from acute mental health issues are housed at the Main Jail in the 8A section.

Among this entire inmate population, there is another division, that of sentenced and un-sentenced inmates. Sentenced inmates have completed the court process. They have entered pleas and have either gone to trial or agreed to a plea bargain. They have been sentenced and are now serving their time. This sentenced population makes up about 25% of the total number of male inmates, a proportion that has remained relatively steady since at least 2002 (see Daily Inmate Population Reports at the Main Jail link above).

The remaining 75% of the population consists of un-sentenced inmates. These are individuals like you who have been arrested but who have not yet been through the court process. The average length of stay for an un-sentenced inmate held on a misdemeanor charge is about 28 days (link entitled “Draft Bail and Release Report for 2-18; page 14). For those charged with felonies, the average is 224 (same link as above; page 14). This means that people who have not been found guilty of any crime occupy a high proportion of available beds. Moreover, they are occupying those beds for a great deal of time.

There is no separation between sentenced and un-sentenced inmates in terms of housing and services. You will be mingling with everyone if you are in the general population. You will also have to navigate the gang culture as best you can. If you were arrested early in the week, you will come before a judge within 48 hours for your arraignment and at that time, you may be released on O.R. You may be released on the stipulation that you adhere to certain conditions imposed by the court and overseen by Pretrial Services. These conditions could include regular reporting, drug or alcohol treatment, electronic monitoring or class attendance. You may also be released on bail at this time.

If you were arrested on Friday or Saturday, you will have to wait until the following Wednesday to come before the judge. This is the phenomenon known as “Wicked Wednesday,” which I will discuss in my next blog post. Since the courts are not open over the weekend, those days are not counted towards the 48-hour window for arraignment.

If you are not released through any of the means outlined above, you will leave the court and return to jail where you will join the population of other un-sentenced inmates who are languishing behind bars while they wait for their case to be resolved.

In 1951, the United States Supreme Court decided Stack v. Boyle (342 U.S. 1). At issue was whether the bail that had been set was excessive. The Court held that bail set at an amount higher than was necessary to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court was excessive under the Eighth Amendment. The concurring opinion explained the purpose of bail clearly.

Bail, wrote Justice Jackson, “is not a device for keeping persons in jail upon mere accusation until it is found convenient to give them a trial. On the contrary, the spirit of the procedure is to enable them to stay out of jail until a trial has found them guilty.”

It seems clear that this spirit has been largely forgotten. Santa Clara County is in the process of approving a new jail building on Hedding Street. The estimated cost of the project is $70 million. One has to wonder if a more thoughtful approach to how we administer bail and O.R. might lessen the need for such an expenditure.

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