Photo by Donald A. Promnitz There are more than a dozen bail bond businesses in Downtown Fresno south of Divisadero Street, each with a handful of employees. California’s bail bonds industry employs about 3,200 people.

published on August 31, 2018 - 7:00 AM
Written by Donald A. Promnitz

A law designed to end cash bail in California is being heavily contested by bond companies and civil rights activists alike, with opponents warning it could have detrimental effects not only to the justice system, but to local economies.

Authored by Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday, SB 10 repeals the existing bail laws. When a suspect is arrested under the current bail system, certain amounts are set depending on the charge. Companies charge 10 percent of the set bail and put this into a surety bond — an insurance policy that the suspect will return to court. For example, if there is a $50,000 bail is set, the bail company will write a $50,000 bond to a surety company and the client pays a percentage of the fee.

Under SB-10, however, this system will be eliminated. Under the law defendants not deemed to be a flight risk would instead be released on bail with the “least restrictive nonmonetary conditions of pretrial release” imposed. Money bail would be eliminated.

Opponents to the new law brought up the issue of accountability for people who are accused of crime. While proponents of the bill have said it seeks to end predatory practices of bail bonds companies, bondsmen have argued that these claims come from a misconception of the role of bail in the criminal justice system with a financial stake in the suspect’s appearance in court. Further incentives are implemented for the person on bail, as it requires another person to co-sign the loan, putting a probable loved one on the hook.

Barry Pearlstein, owner of Lucky Bail Bonds in Fresno and president of the California Bail Agents Association, has further warned that this would mean the end of the bail industry.

“There won’t be a function for bail,” Pearlstein said. “Bail will be eliminated.”

“I don’t think any bail company is going to last too much longer in an industry like this,” Robert Sepulveda Jr., who runs Ajúa! Bail Bonds in Fresno, said on Monday. “If these laws go into effect, it’s going to change the way income is generated for every single one of us.”

Bondsmen in the Central Valley are also warning that this new law would be detrimental to local economies. As bail bonds companies are zoned by cities and relegated to certain areas like downtown, they become a sizable part of that district’s business makeup. In downtown Fresno, for example, there are more than a dozen bail bonds companies south of Divisadero Street alone.

“We’re some of the life down here,” Sepulveda said. “We’re here day and night — 24-hour-a-day operations. A lot of things are going to be effected — the bars, restaurants, eateries, the casino — because bail agents tend to have that 24-hour lifestyle.”

“I mean, it’s instantaneous,” Pearlstein said. “Once this bill goes into effect, there will just be a loss of a whole, complex business system that will just be gone.”

According to Pearlstein, the bail bonds business is one that employs 3,200 people in California — Pearlstein employs two people apiece in his Fresno, Hanford and Inyo offices in addition to himself, and Sepulveda has four people working for him. Meanwhile, the industry generates $4 billion to $6 billion each year. In addition to the state and federal taxes generated through this income, the premium taxes for all bail written will also be lost.

Nonetheless, cash bail may not be out in California just yet. The bill doesn’t go into effect until October 2019. In that time, there may be time and cause to challenge SB 10 in court. The reason for this, Pearlstein said, is because it potentially denies prisoners their constitutional right to bail for non-capital offenses.

Meanwhile, last-minute changes to the bill have given the judges allowance to have greater control and discretion over who they consider to be at risk, potentially leading to them being held without release. These changes have incentivized the American Civil Liberties Union in California (ACLU) and the Human Rights Watch — previous supporters of SB 10 — to come out in opposition. On Aug. 20, the ACLU released a public statement, rescinding their endorsement of the bill.

“As much as we would welcome an end to the predatory lending practices of the for-profit bail industry, SB 10 cannot promise a system with a substantial reduction in pretrial detention,” the statement said. “Neither can SB 10 provide sufficient due process nor adequately protect against racial biases and disparities that permeate our justice system.”

There remains hope the law isn’t a done deal.

“I’m sure the Appellate Court and possibly the Supreme Court [will hear it] based on its constitutionality,” Pearlstein said. “And so yes, I believe it will be challenged.”

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