Inequality for Youth: Why Do Foster Youth & Juvenile Offenders Receive Different Treatment?

I. Introduction: How Does Society Want To Treat Its Children?

            There is a shared belief in society that children should grow up in environments that are conducive to living healthy and productive lives. There are certain things that we believe that all children need and deserve. Those beliefs are even enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential: to be free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. When these things might be lacking, society has in place mechanisms to try and remedy those deficiencies. Judge Leonard P. Edwards, in an article for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, wrote that “[w]hen the family fails or is unable to rear its child within acceptable norms, society has an interest in intervening to achieve its own goals.” Children are our future and it is the shared goal of a society to raise them as best we can. However, there are times when circumstances compel the state to act in the best interest of the child.

            It is because of that fact that society has procedures and systems to protect and nurture children to the best of our ability. Some youth are removed from their unsafe homes and placed into foster care and some youth commit offenses and are then incarcerated. In my last post, I wrote about how children in the juvenile justice system face similar traumas as children in the foster care system might experience and are often even the very same children, yet the treatment they receive is vastly different. The question is why? What is different about the youth that would necessitate a difference in treatment? These youth are often the same and they have all experienced similar trauma. Yet, because of a few different circumstances surrounding the trauma these youth might be experiencing (being removed from their homes and placed in foster care vs. being removed from their homes and being incarcerated) they receive different support.

            Society also collectively believes that children under a certain age lack a “level of maturity, thought process, decision-making, and experience” compared to individuals above the age of majority. We therefore generally distinguish between children and adults with regard to criminal culpability “We punish [criminal acts] because we believe such harm is morally deserved by a particular individual for a particular act.”  However, is that what we want for our children? We recognize that children should be treated differently than adults and that rehabilitative measures would be better for them and society, yet the reality is considerably different. In Miller v. Alabama (2012), a 14-year-old committed murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court held that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, writing “that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform…they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”

There is certainly a different societal view on the two populations, foster youth and juvenile justice youth, but they are all still children and youth that are deserving of all that we believe children deserve. Both systems can be traumatizing, but we tend to think one set of youth deserve what they are getting because they have committed some criminal/delinquent act. This is especially true for children and youth that commit particularly heinous or violent crimes because instinctively, we believe they should be punished.  This idea is given credence in Chief Justice Roberts’s Miller  dissent, where he wrote “society may determine that [protecting the innocent from violence] requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency.” Yet the fact that these children and youth still are treated differently despite experiencing similar trauma is unjust. These children all deserve similar support when they experience difficult circumstances.

            In this post I will go through a brief overview of the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system as well as the theories underlying them. Then I will discuss issues with the juvenile justice system and its implementation and some of the realities of juvenile justice. I will also discuss some reforms to the issues addressed. Finally, I will discuss possible policy suggestions and further plans of action.

Continue reading “Inequality for Youth: Why Do Foster Youth & Juvenile Offenders Receive Different Treatment?”
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Who are dually-involved youth? And why do we need DIY courts?

Many children who are involved in the child welfare system and juvenile justice system go back and forth between dependency hearings and criminal proceedings. Along with this come visits with social workers, probation officers, and usually some kind of social services for the child and family. Because this group of children are involved in two legal systems, they are called “dually-involved youth.” (DIY) A significant number of DIY have been affected by some form of childhood trauma and they are often underserved as they move between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Due to the trauma affecting these young people and a lack of stability in their lives, they generally need more services than youths involved in only one legal system. In this post I will describe dually-involved youth and the problems they face as well as why we need dedicated DIY Courts. In the next post I will discuss how DIY Courts work and how using an integrated systems approach helps solve these problems.

We need Dually Involved Youth Courts to help the most vulnerable young people.

Because there is no national data on dually-involved youth I will use data from various jurisdictions that have studied this population to show how these children are affected by being dually-involved. The fact that there is no national data demonstrates how little we know about this group as a whole. As a result, we are forced to use limited information when designing policy to combat the negative effects of dual-involvement.

Continue reading “Who are dually-involved youth? And why do we need DIY courts?”

The Impact of Broad Discretion in Setting Immigration Bond

In my last post, I talked about the lack of regulations in setting immigration bond and the great disparity in the amount of bond granted. A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to witness a few immigration bond hearings in San Francisco. Each hearing was different, and each had a different result.

a-immigrantcourtThe Immigration Judge granted bond in only one case, setting it at $10,000, and ordered only one release without bond. Both of these individuals had legal representation. The first one had been arrested for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. The second one was a Franco case, meaning that the individual was someone with a mental disability. In 2013, Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder resulted in an injunction requiring the government to appoint counsel and provide bond hearings for seriously mentally ill noncitizens detained in Arizona, California and Washington. This explains why, even though an interpreter was present, the judge did not question the man in a red jumpsuit sitting in court quietly and absent-mindedly. All questions and instructions were directed at his “qualified representative”, an attorney from a local non-profit organization who successfully argued that her client did not represent a danger to the community and that he would not be able to pay even the minimum amount of bond ($1,500).

I also witnessed several Rodriguez bond hearings, also known as custody determination hearings, for non-citizens who had been detained for six months or longer. For the first two Rodriguez bond cases, the attorneys simply asked for a continuance. To my surprise, the judge warned the two attorneys that in his experience, unless a stay (a temporary postponement of an order of removal) had been granted it would not be surprising if the non-citizens were removed before the next hearing. This is because in immigration court an appeal does not carry an automatic stay, nor does a Rodriguez bond hearing.

The other three individuals seeking Rodriguez bond were unrepresented and all appeared via video teleconferencing (VTC). The first one asked for more time to find an attorney. The next was a 26-year-old immigrant from Honduras who had been previously deported. He spoke English fluently and asked the judge to grant his release so he could go back to work as a cook and provide for his 3-year-old son and his family. The judge asked if he owned any property or had any savings; the young man replied that he only had $3,000. The judge denied bond, citing a “serious” flight risk because did not have family ties in the U.S. To be honest, I thought that if the judge was to deny bond it would be because in an effort to be honest, as this young man put it, he also said that he had been detained for a DUI previously and that ICE believed him to have had gang affiliation when he was a minor, which he vehemently denied. It seems that the judge did not think he was a danger, but still denied the bond despite the fact that this man’s whole family lives in the U.S., including his Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) mother, who had already filed a petition seeking permanent residence status for him as well.

The last hearing I sat through was for a homeless veteran, a legal permanent resident and former Marine. After being asked if he needed more time to find an attorney he told the judge he had written to several non-profits seeking legal representation but had not heard back from any of them. He told the judge he wanted to represent himself because he was having a “really hard time” being detained and wanted a chance to explain how he believed he is a citizen. He had taken a citizenship class and filed paperwork to become a citizen in 1991, while he was still on active duty. When the judge asked if he had any proof he replied that he had been homeless for the past six years and did not keep any documents. He also said he suffers from serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and was having a very difficult time coping with being detained. The judge denied bond.

After the hearings concluded I asked the judge about how lack of representation affects a case, and he insisted that it does not affect the ultimate outcome of bond hearings. But although I only sat through a handful of hearings, only two individuals were ordered released – one on bond and other with certain conditions – and both were represented. As I wrote in my last post, judges do not have to consider ability to pay, so I had to ask the judge about his reason for asking about the individual’s assets in one of the cases; he said that he did this in order to set bond at an amount that represents more than just a fraction of the individual’s assets and thus have stronger assurance that the individual will continue to appear in court.

Lastly, I asked about the effects of the Rodriguez ruling and whether more bonds were being granted now that more individuals were eligible for these hearings. The judge said that in his experience 99.9% of Rodriguez bonds were denied, as judges still had to decide whether the individual is a danger to the community or a flight risk. This is consistent with what I saw; not a single Rodriguez bond was granted that morning. However, this should not be interpreted as non-citizens being denied because they are an actual danger to the community.

Bond and Refugees:

If there is one group that has felt the harsh consequences of the lack of safeguards in immigration bond proceedings, including immigration bond, it is refugees, especially Central American mothers and children fleeing unimaginable violence in their home countries. After making a grueling journey though several countries, risking being raped, assaulted, and even killed, when they finally get to the border seeking asylum they are quickly detained and sent to “family” detention centers, such as Karnes, in South Texas. Karnes is run by the GEO Group, a private correctional detention company and was recently granted a temporary “residential child care license”, a move to circumvent an order from the Federal District Court for the Central District of California, which last August gave the Obama administration two months to release refugee children held in these unlicensed facilities. It is too soon to know the actual effect, but at the very least this means that the Obama administration can now continue to detain women and children indefinitely. Before last year’s Court order to release children from these detention facilities was issued, families had many complaints, including sexual abuse of women, lack of proper medical care for children, and bonds being set as high as $20,000.

Samey
An immigration judge has set Samey’s bond at $25,000. RAICES, a non-profit in San Antonio, TX has created the “Free Samey Fund” to raise money to free Same once and for all.

Samey, a former interpreter for the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who fled to seek asylum in the U.S. after being threatened by the Taliban has been detained for nearly a year. During Samey’s hearing before the judge, retired Lieutenant Colonel Mike Williams testified on his behalf and urged that Samey be granted asylum. Everyone thought that this was a “fairly open-and shut-case”; instead, the judge denied asylum and ordered Samey’s deportation. Samey did not have legal counsel. However, Samey was recently given a $25,000 bond, something he simply cannot afford. This high bond was set despite Samey not having a criminal record or presenting any danger to the community; he actually has family members who have been granted asylum on the same grounds, and even presented testimony by a former lieutenant colonel.

The Economic and Social Impact of Detention:

When a judge does grant bond, the person who pays the bond needs to have legal status, and in some cases has to be a family member. When immigrants cannot afford bond, it could lead to prolonged separation from their family and loss of social and economic support. The economic impact of detention could be measured in two ways – the cost incurred by the government when detaining immigrants for prolonged periods of time and the cost to the immigrants in the form of wages loss.

A survey of 562 immigrants detained in Southern California for six months or longer found that “approximately 90 percent were employed in the six months prior to detention.” The survey then calculated the collective lost wages due to detention to be nearly $11.9 million (or $43,357 per day). On the other hand, the government spent nearly $24.8 million dollars to detain these immigrants for an average of 274 days, with a daily cost of $161 dollars per detainee per day.

Sixty nine percent of the 562 surveyed immigrants had a U.S. Citizen or Legal Permanent resident spouse or child. About 94% were a source of financial or emotional support for their families, and 64% of these immigrants’ families had difficulty paying rent, mortgage or utility bills. In addition, 42% of families were unable to pay for necessary medical care and 37% could not pay for food. The lack of data makes it difficult to determine how many immigrants sitting in detention for prolonged periods of time are there simply because they cannot afford to post bond.

When bond is set at an amount a detainee and their family cannot afford, many are forced to contract with bond companies. Most companies require collateral, in the form of property or other assets, and they charge a non-refundable premium each year until the case is closed. This means non-citizens end up paying more than the actual bond amount and the collateral is not released until the end of the proceedings, which can take several years.

There is a new type of business that has emerged to service those who do not have property to use as collateral. The name of this company is “Libre” by Nexus. In my next post I will explain how “Libre” works and why customers are complaining.

 

 

 

What Is The Purpose Of Bail? It Depends On Who You Talk To

While discussing the California bail system, a Santa Clara County district attorney said, “It’s just so difficult to get guilty pleas from defendants who are NOT in custody.” (Emphasis added) These statements, along with many others I’ve heard over the course of my research, serve to reinforce common misunderstandings about the bail system. These misunderstandings, in turn, have misdirected conversations about what the U.S. bail system is intended to accomplish.

Immediately after hearing the district attorney make this statement, I thought to myself, “if a defendant is truly guilty, a fast and easy guilty plea would certainly save the county a lot of resources and it would be in the best interest of the community because it would ensure speedy justice for the victim.” However, a fast and easy plea deal is not beneficial to everyone when we consider the effects of detaining individuals prior to trial.

Over 62% of county jail inmates are NON-CONVICTED individuals. This means that over half of the jail population is made up of people who have not yet been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Individuals accused of a misdemeanor spend more than 30 days in jail before they are tried and either found not guilty or convicted. When we consider all of this, it’s reasonable to assume that many individuals who are wrongfully accused may be coerced into a guilty plea simply because they are desperate to get out of jail.

District attorneys are charged with proving an accused individual’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Negotiating plea deals is also an important and necessary part of their job. Therefore, keeping defendants in custody is beneficial to this part of their work because it provides an incentive for the accused to agree. This however, has absolutely nothing to do with the purposes of the U.S. bail system. Stated another way, the U.S. bail system is not in place to keep a defendant in custody for the sake of helping district attorneys do their jobs. In this post, I will provide commentary on other misconceptions I’ve found during my research.

To date, I have uncovered and corrected some of the misleading information available to the public about the U.S. bail system in an attempt to foster public discourse in a meaningful way. In a previous post, I took it upon myself to provide readers with a thorough understanding of the term “bail.” Unsurprisingly, when I read a publication that uses misleading information to further spread the belief that bail must always involve money, or that it should accomplish anything other than what its meant to accomplish, I am quick to respond with complete and accurate information.

On November 1, 2012, the Golden State Bail Agents Association published a testimonial written by one of their attorneys, Mr. Albert W. Ramirez. Mr. Ramirez’s testimony, while not technically wrong, is misleading and demands some elaboration. This testimony was made before the California General Assembly. In this post, I don’t intend to disprove Mr. Ramirez and I don’t intend for this post to serve as a response to his statements. I only cite to his testimony because it provides an illustration of the common misconceptions I’ve found during my research.

In this post, I will supply that elaboration by offering an accurate statement of the issue at hand and then following with an explanation of how the statements made by Mr. Ramirez are misleading. I don’t urge readers to read or accept Mr. Ramirez’s testimony because I have taken issue with the way in which it misleads readers. Further, it is not necessary to read the testimony as I’ve included the relevant statements for my commentary.

Myth: Money bail opponents think bail is too expensive.

Truth: Advocates for bail system reform seek to reduce the number of detained pretrial defendants in order to achieve a fair and effective system.

Mr. Ramirez maintains that, “California’s commercial bail system has been under attack by the ACLU” and that the “ACLU’s primary criticism of commercial bail is that it’s too expensive.” (Page 1) First and foremost, “the attack” as he calls it is not necessarily on the commercial bail system, as the ACLU and other groups have clearly indicated that their concerns are directly associated with the entire bail system as a whole. On numerous occasions, the ACLU has specifically been critical of the money bail system for the detrimental effects it has on the poor. For example, a dangerous but wealthy individual may be released from custody by paying money bail while a person who does not pose a danger to society may be held simply because they cannot afford to do the same. Both of these scenarios are bad for obvious reasons and have absolutely nothing to do with the commercial bail system.

Further, concerns over the U.S. bail system stem from the large numbers of individuals currently incarcerated. While the ACLU has indeed urged states to pass more stringent regulations for regulating commercial bail, it’s important for readers to be aware that stringent regulation is not an attack on the commercial bail industry, but rather a means for protecting the rights of the indigent, who happen to be the clients of private commercial bail companies. Some states such as New Jersey have already taken steps towards this.

Myth: The effectiveness of any bail system is best measured by failure to appear rates.

Truth: The bail system is in place to both ensure a defendant’s appearance at court and ensure public safety.

Many commercial bail supporters (including Mr. Ramirez) misguidedly rely on the failure to appear (FTA) rates to argue that commercial bail is much more effective than other forms of release such as Own Recognizance release (OR). David Ball at the Santa Clara University School of Law illustrates why FTA is not a great measure of effectiveness. For the purposes of this post, the key takeaway from Professor Ball’s article is the fact that while the bail system is in place to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court, that’s not all it’s meant to accomplish and ensure.

Mr. Ramirez correctly states, “Our criminal justice system cannot function if defendants fail to appear for their court proceedings,” but he completely disregards the fact that these failure to appear rates do not capture the whole picture. (Page 1) For one thing, a defendant may be returned to custody due to being rearrested (possibly on different charges). When that occurs, there is virtually no chance that he will miss any court dates as he is in custody and the jail officials will simply surrender him to the court on his given court date. Mr. Ramirez, like many other commercial bail proponents, completely ignores the fact that the justice system is also meant to guarantee a defendant’s release under the least restrictive conditions and ensure public safety.

Myth: Commercial bail is a necessary component of the criminal justice system.

Truth: There are many alternatives to commercial bail such as releasing people on “bail” without the need for bail bonds.

The effectiveness of a pretrial release method must include considerations of both the defendant’s likelihood to appear for their scheduled court date and their threat to public safety. As already mentioned, bail is meant to ensure that a defendant appears at his court date. This requires the court to impose certain conditions upon a defendant’s release in order to ensure that he shows up to his court date. When determining bail terms and conditions, a judge is required to consider whether the defendants pose a risk to public safety.

Mr. Ramirez cites to “The most comprehensive study ever done on bail” in an attempt to undercut the entire purpose of bail by simply focusing on failure to appear. (Page 3) The testimony ignores the fact that pretrial release determinations vary from state to state with regards to criteria used and the specific conditions of release. In some states, defendants are much more likely to be released with little to no consideration of their threat to public safety or their likelihood to appear in court. This is important because a pretrial system that considers the threat to public safety in their determination for release will likely provide a much more thorough interview and as such likely to release fewer defendants.

Mr. Ramirez states that “A risk assessment tool is merely a questionnaire consisting of a list of factors that have been shown to correlate one way or another with criminality or flight risk.” and then proceeds to question the validity of such findings. (Page 6) Specifically noteworthy is the fact that Mr. Ramirez’s fails to acknowledge that some jurisdiction, such as Santa Clara, have a comprehensive system in which defendants are thoroughly interviewed and the determination about their release is made after a long process.

In Santa Clara County, federal and state constitutional protections from excessive bail are often successfully implemented through pretrial release programs.

One key issue in Mr. Ramirez’s testimony is the fact that many of his statements rely on the idea or assumption that people have “the right to bail.” As previously stated, “bail” refers to all types of pretrial release, not just those made in exchange for money. (Page 3) The protections and rights prescribed by the federal and California constitutions do not guarantee that an individual is entitled to any specific type of release from custody. In fact, some defendants are not entitled to any kind of release at all.

It is certainly true that many California residents, along with many other U.S. residents, have money bail set, and that they often use commercial bail companies when they cannot afford to pay the full amount of money required by the court. Thus, while many residents use commercial bail companies to secure their release from custody, it is not true that “bail” is usually implemented through commercial bail companies. Courts not only release defendants by setting an amount of money that must be paid by the defendant to the court—they also release defendants on certain conditions, or simply cite and release the individual with a promise to return to court.

More importantly, protections from excessive bail are embedded in the Constitution of the United States as well as in many state constitutions. Unlike the misguided statement I quoted at the beginning of this post, these protections are specifically designed to protect defendants from entering into coerced or false guilty pleas. Also, contrary to popular belief, this protection does not grant an individual the right to pay a bail agent a large sum of money in exchange for his freedom.

This protection simply grants an individual the right to be released from custody, while he awaits his trial, under the least restrictive conditions. I mention the term “popular belief” because this is yet another misguided assumption that a lot of Americans (myself included) have been led to believe by statements from officials in high positions (like the district attorney), news coverage, and other popular media.

Why does this all matter? Misunderstandings about the U.S. bail system and the protections afforded by the Eighth Amendment have limited conversations about how this system can be improved both to ensure community safety and a defendants appearance in court. Money bail has become the norm and many have accepted it as the only system simply because it’s all we have known. These limitations have blinded most people from truly appreciating the fact that money bail does not accomplish any of its goals. These limitations have also allowed many to ignore the fact that there are alternatives to bail. A meaningful conversation about bail reform is long overdue and it must begin with accurate information.

 

 

 

Reclassification as a Means for Integration: The Positives of Prop 47

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If you are in jail, imagine having your prior felony reclassified as a misdemeanor so that you no longer face six years in prison for stealing $10 worth of merchandise (anecdote to be shared below). Or, if you are released in society, imagine having your criminal record adjusted so you are no longer barred from receiving federal welfare, student grants, or medical care. (PDF pages 9-10). You also are no longer excluded from employment in care facilities, including child-care jobs, and you might no longer face automatic disqualification if potential employers discover your conviction records. (Although technically it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an individual based on an individual’s criminal record, it certainly still happens). Further, if you are an undocumented immigrant, a parent, and facing deportation, your adjusted criminal record may qualify you for protection under Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). (PDF page 5). Also, if you are undocumented, facing deportation, and entered the United States before you were sixteen, your adjusted criminal record may qualify you for protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). (PDF page 5).

All four groups of people described above did not have these freedoms or protections prior to Prop 47’s passage. In addition to reducing prison and jail populations along with infrastructural costs, Prop 47 strove to change certain individuals’ felony records, improving the social and financial status of these individuals who had previously committed non-violent drug possession or petty theft crimes. Reclassification is not instantaneous, but it helps nonviolent offenders receive the financial support and employment opportunities necessary to become more fully integrated in society.

Continue reading “Reclassification as a Means for Integration: The Positives of Prop 47”

Privatization of Money Bail

In a previous post, I described the basic structure of for profit bail and addressed potential concerns with the privatization of this section of criminal justice. This post will address whether private bail agents save taxpayers’ money, increase efficiency and innovation in pretrial release, allow policymakers to focus on policy instead of procedure, streamline and downsize government, and, for their customers, whether they increase flexibility of service, quality of service, and the appearance rate in court.

The best approach to this analysis is to look at the service needed, the service actually provided, and the comparative costs and benefits of the private system against public systems. (Here’s an alternative analysis concluding that financial remuneration for pretrial detainees is a preferred solution). The service needed is simple. We presume the innocence of criminal defendants and, in order to not deprive them of liberty without any proven reason, we release the defendant pending trial. The public wants assurances that the released defendant will: 1) not endanger public safety during pretrial release and 2) show up to court (or prevent a failure to appear, “FTA”). Money bail only addresses one of those needs – the failure to appear, discussed below. For the sake of argument, and because the bail industry claims to protect public safety, I address public safety first. Continue reading “Privatization of Money Bail”

Van Atta v. Scott: Why the Supreme Court Could Not Solve the Problem

In an earlier post, I detailed the California Supreme Court case, Van Atta v. Scott, which “changed the game” for all in-custody defendants seeking pretrial release on their own recognizance.  To recap, the court held that keeping a defendant in custody before trial is an infringement on individual liberty under the 14th Amendment.  Courts may not violate someone’s liberty interest without due process of law.  Due process in this case requires the prosecution to prove that a defendant should be held pretrial, rather than requiring a defendant to prove to the court that he or she should be released. By placing a burden on the prosecutors, I assumed the Van Atta decision would make it easier for defendants to be released on OR.  The way the court described the harm of pretrial detention gave the impression that prosecutors would face a difficult task in keeping defendants detained pretrial.  Turns out that’s not the case.

Since the ruling in Van Atta, the number of defendants released on OR has actually gone down.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a study of the 75 most populous counties in the United States, twelve of which were in California.  The study showed that from 1990 through 1994, release on OR accounted for roughly 41% of all pretrial releases, whereas surety bond accounted for only 24% of releases.  However, in 2002 through 2004, surety bond releases increased to 41% of all releases, while the number of defendants released on OR decreased to just 23%. (pdf pg. 2).  In addition, from 2000 to 2009, California’s largest urban counties relied on pretrial detention more than urban counties in other states. (Figure 3).  These statistics suggest that Van Atta has not really had any meaningful impact on defendants requesting release on OR.

The infrequency of OR release lead me to question my assumption that Van Atta made it more difficult to detain defendants pretrial.  The initial reaction is to assume that judges are not holding prosecutors to their standard of proof, and thus ignoring the California Supreme Court’s ruling.  However, upon further review, that answer is too simple.  The reason Van Atta has not made it easier for defendants to be released on OR is two-fold.  First, the decision itself does not provide trial court judges with sufficient guidance about how to implement its ruling and change the OR determination process.  Second, and perhaps most important, the rules in place that govern pretrial detention and release procedures make it easy for prosecutors to meet their burden.

Like many appellate level decisions, Van Atta leaves California trial courts with a stated principle of law, but without much detail about how that principle should be implemented.  The principle itself is simple enough.  The People now bear the burden of proving why a defendant should not be released on OR pretrial.  However, the court does not explain what standard the People are required to meet.  It does not say whether it is by a preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, or evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.  Prosecutors are simply required to prove that a defendant should be denied OR.  Imposing a burden without clearly defining the standard by which it is supposed to be applied makes the burden relatively meaningless. It provides no guidance to either prosecutors or judges.

Another issue with the Van Atta decision is that it creates a rule of law that, in practice, contradicts the California Constitution. Article 1 Section 12 of the California Constitution states that a person “shall be released on bail by sufficient sureties.” In contrast, the same section states, “a person may be released” on OR in the court’s discretion. The distinction between may and shall is important because it establishes that one is required, while the other is permissive. Every defendant, except for a few limited exceptions, must receive surety bail. On the other hand, no one is entitled to release on OR. However, under Van Atta’s rationale, courts no longer have discretion over the decision to grant OR release. They must do so if the prosecutor is unable to prove otherwise.

For example, let’s assume that a defendant is arraigned on a non-capital felony offense. The court is required to set bail for the defendant.  After arraignment, the defendant makes a motion requesting release on OR.  If the prosecutor offers no argument in opposition to the motion,[1] then under Van Atta the state has not met its burden of proof, and the court would have to release the defendant.  Therefore, Van Atta creates a situation in which defendants receive a presumptive right to OR as soon as they request it.  It effectively takes away the discretion of courts under the California Constitution. What’s left is an unworkable rule that’s difficult to implement.  How does a court place a burden of proof on prosecutors without creating a presumptive right for defendants?

Perhaps the answer is that courts may still refuse to grant OR release sua sponte (i.e. within their discretion) even if a prosecutor does not meet the burden of proof.  That certainly comports with the discretionary language of Article I § 12.  But of course, that doesn’t fit with Van Atta.  According to the court, it was unconstitutional for San Francisco Superior Court judges to require defendants to prove that they should be released on OR.  However, if judges may still deny OR release without a prosecutor making an argument, then nothing has changed. We are still left with the problem of defendants fighting to convince judges that they deserve to be released.

Even if we assume that Van Atta did create a workable rule that imposes a burden on the People to prove that a defendant should be denied OR, the rules of the game make it easy for prosecutors to meet that burden.  When the Court decided Van Atta, the defendant’s likelihood of appearing at future court proceedings was the only determination courts had to make when deciding whether or not to grant OR.  Public safety was not a factor when Van Atta was decided, but now it is the primary factor.

It follows that if the prosecution bore the burden of proving a defendant’s likelihood of appearance, the prosecutor now also bears the burden of proving that a defendant is a risk to public safety.  Proving that risk is not terribly difficult when there is apparently a rule in California Superior Courts that a judge must accept as true all allegations filed in a criminal complaint. I say “apparently,” because the rule actually does not exist in any statute, regulation, or local rule. But I’ve heard prosecutors and judges reference it in open court. Supposedly it originates from an 1879 California Supreme Court decision, Ex Parte Duncan. In that case, the defendant was in custody and he petitioned the court to reduce his bail.  The court denied the request, stating that “we must assume in this proceeding that the petitioner is guilty of . . . the felonies of which he is indicted.”  The words “in this proceeding” are crucial because it means that the court was limiting the presumption of guilt to situations in which a grand jury had already decided that there was enough evidence to charge the defendant with a crime.  However, the rule has expanded over time, and many judges now presume guilt at all stages of the criminal justice system for purposes of bail.  The result is an incredibly powerful tool for prosecutors.

The prosecutor can effectively argue that a given defendant is a threat to the public simply by virtue of filing charges of criminal behavior that paint the individual as a threat.  The evidence doesn’t have to be weighed, and judges don’t have to consider any mitigating factors absent from the complaint.  The ability of a judge to presume that a defendant is guilty for purposes of setting bail makes the prosecutor’s job of fulfilling his or her burden of proof substantially easier.

I learned through watching felony arraignment and bail motion proceedings in Santa Clara County that Van Atta has not really made it a challenge for prosecutors to successfully oppose a motion for OR. In over 70 arraignments and pretrial bail motion proceedings of in-custody felony defendants I saw judges grant OR, or supervised OR, only five times. In one case, the prosecutor was able to convince the judge to deny OR because the defendant had allegedly told his victim, “I am going to f*** kill you.” The judge said that she must believe that the defendant did make the statement, and denied OR on the basis that defendant was a threat to public safety. The entire argument lasted three minutes. This was the norm during most motions for OR release and it was not the type of adversarial proceeding I envisioned after reading Van Atta.

Although I viewed Van Atta v. Scott as a landmark decision for defendants, it really hasn’t had a meaningful impact on the amount of defendants released on OR. It may be easy to blame the judges and prosecutors for ignoring the decision and not adhering to precedent.  However, I think it is more nuanced than that. Even if the parties within the criminal justice system believe that they are adhering to Van Atta, our bail determination procedures render the decision toothless. It is clear that if anyone is serious about addressing issues regarding bail and pretrial detention, meaningful statutory reform is necessary. Litigation, even at the highest level, may not be enough.

 

[1] This is a very unlikely scenario, but illustrative nonetheless.