Here's what Prop. 25 means in Ventura County
A "yes" vote on Proposition 25 would allow legislation eliminating money bail to move forward in the state and replace it with a system that assesses an arrested person's flight risk and potential to commit more crime.
The proposition is a voter referendum on Senate Bill 10, which was passed by the state Legislature in 2018. The law, stalled by the ballot measure now before voters, would get rid of a system that critics say unfairly treats people accused of crimes who don't have the financial means to get out of jail before their trial begins.
Under SB 10, money bail would be replaced by a risk assessment tool that typically involves a series of questions used to recommend jail custody or some level of community supervision based on the resulting score. In the more serious cases, the recommendation goes to a judge and he or she makes the final decision.
The referendum was backed largely by the bail industry, which would likely shut down within 20 months should the proposition pass, said Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition.
The coalition, a trade association including industry professionals, supports 15,000 employees and 3,000 licensed bail agents in the state, Clayton said.
"Everyone is looking at this Nov. 3 decision as very important," said Ventura County Probation Chief Mark Varela.
If passed, the bill would not go into effect right away, Varela said.
The agency he oversees has already been using one of these tools to help determine if individuals charged with certain felonies should be incarcerated in the Ventura County jail before trial.
The program has been in place since 2013 and was expanded in 2019 after the Ventura County Superior Court was awarded $3.7 million from the California Judicial Council. The court contracts with probation to do the pre-trial risk assessments.
For years, the council, which is the policy-making body of the courts, has studied the money bail system in different workgroups. A 2017 report from one of the groups called it "unsafe and unfair."
The Ventura County court was one of 16 statewide to be given a share of $68 million to implement pilot programs for bail alternatives or work to expand existing ones.
The funding has allowed local probation officers to be embedded in the jail facility to actively conduct these assessments from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., including holidays, said Crystal Davis, a division manager in the probation agency.
Using what's called the Ohio Risk Assessment Tool, the agency has curated data that tells an officer if a person is likely to report for the rest of their court appearances and if they're likely to commit a new offense pre-trial, Varela said.
"We're at just above 90% of individuals who did not commit new offenses while on pretrial supervision and it fluctuates between 82 and 85% that attend all their court hearings," Varela said.
Clayton, of the American Bail Coalition, said there is data that suggests the tool is faulty and racially biased. The racial bias of the Ohio Risk Assessment tool comes in the form of questions about employment, drug use and how long a person has stayed at the same residence, Clayton said.
Given the racial and social inequities in housing and job opportunities these questions can be problematic, Clayton said.
"This tool will determine the future of the pretrial system in Ventura County if Prop. 25 were to become law," Clayton said.
The use of a pre-trial risk assessment may also be inconsistent across the state because there are different tools counties can use, Clayton said.
Clayton and other critics say the legislation is not well thought out.
Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians For Safety and Justice, argues said SB 10 does not specify which tool to use. A new one can be created to weed out any issues, Jordan said.
"This is really an opportunity for us as a society to parse out any racial bias in our pretrial system," Jordan said.
Additionally, the Legislature has thought of ways to ensure that these risk assessment tools can evolve and remain fair. A subsequent bill called Senate Bill 36 was passed in 2019 that says if SB 10 becomes law, the government has to track and report any racial disparities as time goes on, Jordan said.
"The state legislators went through a whole process with community groups and said this is fair," Jordan said of the process to pass SB 10.
The seriousness of the accused offense should also go into account as to who stays in jail before trial, Jordan said. Some people are in jail because they can't pay $1,000 to be released even though their charge isn't that serious, Jordan said.
On the other hand, Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer caught on video kneeling on George Floyd's neck for eight minutes, was released on a $1 million bond, Jordan said.
The proposition is supported by the California Democratic Party, social justice groups and nonprofits like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
There is somewhat of a divide though among these groups aimed at social and racial justice, said Mike Gatto, a former state assemblyman and spokesman for the "No on Prop. 25" campaign.
Some law enforcement, retired judges, prosecutors and groups like Human Rights Watch and the president of the California State Conference of the NAACP have opposed it.
"There is a very broad, unheard of coalition of groups, who are opposing it. These are groups and officials who don’t typically rally together, or for that matter, don’t typically agree on anything," Gatto said.
There's concern that sitting judges might put too many people in jail, he said.
Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said he would not issue any stance on the proposition.
Megan Diskin is a courts and breaking news reporter with The Star. Reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0258.