Court’s revolving door ends for reoffenders

One Visalia man was released twice during statewide order to release ‘low-level’ offenders on $0 bail schedule

TULARE COUNTY – People used to joke about the revolving door of justice at county superior courts, where criminals would be released and rearrested prior to appearing in court for the first crime. But nobody has been laughing since early April when a ruling by the Judicial Council of California made the revolving door a reality by eliminating bail for misdemeanor and low-level crimes.

The most glaring example of the ruling’s effect was 22-year-old Kyle Baker. On April 19, Baker was alleged to have been driving a stolen dairy vehicle with $10,000 worth of property in the bed, which has not yet been found. Baker was initially charged with driving a stolen vehicle, grand theft, drug possession, and misdemeanor looting. At his arraignment on April 21, the court released him on his own recognizance.

Two weeks later, Baker was pulled over on May 3 in what was discovered to be another stolen vehicle. After being arrested and ordered to return to court on July 6. He was immediately released from jail on $0 bail. He was later charged with grand theft auto, looting, possession of drugs and paraphernalia. On May 15, prosecutors filed an additional felony case of driving a stolen vehicle and possession of burglar’s tools for an incident that was alleged to have occurred on March 11, a little more than a month prior to his April 19 arrest.

On June 2, Baker was arraigned on grand theft auto, looting, and possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia for allegedly stealing a car on May 30, 2020. The looting charge was later amended to felony looting, which was not eligible for early release under the statewide emergency bail schedule. Bail was then set at $290,000 for Baker’s four open felony cases and six misdemeanor cases. Baker pleaded not guilty and currently remains in custody.

The revolving door of justice came to an end on Saturday, June 20. That’s when the Judicial Council of California’s recent ruling took effect to end the COVID-19 emergency bail schedule. On June 10, the Judicial Council, which oversees California’s court system, voted 17-2 to rescind its order establishing $0 bail for people accused of misdemeanors and lower-level crimes.

The ruling was meant to “safely reduce jail populations” and curb the spread of COVID-19 in the jails, neither of which was a problem in rural counties like Tulare County. To date, no inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and overcrowding has not been a problem in Tulare County, where county jails consistently had about 700 beds open for additional inmates. Instead, the law allowed many criminals to reoffend and the early release program included crimes such as human trafficking for forced labor, child abuse and neglect, elder abuse, auto theft, burglary and failing to register as a sex offender.

After months of rural counties pleading with the Judicial Council to reverse its “one-size-fits-all” ruling, Marsha Slough, a Judicial Council member and chair of the Executive and Planning Committee, gave counties the option to continue the bail schedule on their own.

“The Judicial Council’s action better reflects the current needs of our state, which has different health concerns and restrictions county-to-county based on the threat posed by COVID-19,” Justice Slough said. “We urge local courts to continue to use the emergency COVID-19 bail schedule where necessary to protect the health of the community, the courts, and the incarcerated. We are also asking courts to report back by June 20 on whether they plan to keep the COVID-19 emergency bail schedule, or another reduced bail schedule.”

The Judicial Council decided to review the order after certain milestones were met, including:

-Prisons are expected to allow transfers of convicted inmates from jails in all 58 counties to state institutions by June 19, which will continue to lower jail populations.

-More than 20,000 defendants accused of lower-level offenses have been released before their trials from California’s jails since the start of the pandemic, helping keep jails and courts from becoming vectors for the spread of COVID-19 between inmates, jail staff and surrounding communities.

Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said the $0 bail schedule could be a precursor to a new state law that may take effect this year or next. Senate Bill 10 was signed into law in August 2018 and changes California’s pretrial release system from a money-based system to a risk-based release and detention system. Under that system, misdemeanors would be cited and released within 12 hours and those arrested for more serious crimes would be held, without a money bail, based on their likelihood to reoffend or flee. The law was set to take effect last October but the Judicial Council suspended its implementation until this November when voters will consider a referendum reversing the law. The referendum was backed by the American Bail Coalition, a nonprofit trade association, and qualified for the Nov. 2020 ballot in January 2019.

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye also rescinded her statewide order extending time for defendants to be arraigned. That change would require defendants again be arraigned within 48 hours. The Judicial Council said it may re-institute these measures if health conditions worsen or change.

Hearings

The recension of emergency bail schedules is just the latest piece of the justice system’s return to normalcy in Tulare County. Tulare County Superior Courtrooms began conducting civil hearings on June 4 and the court announced it would begin traffic and small claims court hearings on Sept. 8. Access to the courthouse is still restricted to only those required to appear in person, including parties, victims, witnesses, attorneys and those conducing necessary business. Parties are strongly encouraged to appear via remote video and teleconference when available. Visit the court’s website, www.tularesuperiorcourt.ca.gov, to request a remote appearance.

Any members of the public entering the courthouse must abide by social distancing orders. In addition to physical distance, the court has implemented the following measures: Alternating calendar times, promoting the use of remote video and telephonic appearances and public service counters remain by appointment only. Parties seeking appointments may visit www.tularesuperiorcourt.ca.gov for details on scheduling an appointment.

All court processing divisions are currently available via phone Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and drop boxes remain available for public use. A drive-up drop box was installed at the Visalia location on June 9. The box is located on the east side of the courthouse and accept sdrops for any court offices located within the building. The public should continue to conduct business via drop box, mail and e-file when available. Walk-up service window 2 in the South County Justice Center remains available as a drop box location for south county court users. The court will continue to expand operations as resource and health and safety constraints permit.

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