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California courts end zero bail order imposed during coronavirus pandemic

California judicial leaders on Wednesday ended a statewide policy of imposing $0 bail for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies that reduced jail populations by more than 20,000 suspects during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s Judicial Council said the policy helped ease crowding in jails, which are potential hot spots for spreading the virus.

But it said a uniform statewide policy is no longer appropriate as the state’s 58 counties vary widely in how quickly they ease stay-at-home orders aimed at slowing spread of the virus.

The rule-making arm of the judicial system abruptly delayed other votes Wednesday on ending emergency orders suspending foreclosures and evictions during the pandemic, after state lawmakers criticized the courts for preparing to act before they can enact new safeguards.

Individual counties can keep the $0 bail policy “where necessary to protect the health of the community, the courts, and the incarcerated” after the statewide policy ends June 20, said Justice Marsha Slough, a member of the council.

Council members voted 17-2 to rescind the statewide order.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye simultaneously ended her statewide order allowing additional time for defendants to be arraigned. That means they must once again face a judge within 48 hours.

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Law enforcement leaders had roundly criticized the bail reduction since it took effect in early April, with some publicizing examples where offenders were freed only to be quickly re-arrested.

But public defenders said the $0 bail caused no significant increase in crime and should continue, particularly as the nation confronts racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

“There’s a nationwide uprising against systemic racism, and the council chooses this moment to give counties permission to return to the mass pre-trial incarceration of Black and Brown people,” Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods said in a statement. He had urged the council to keep the rule in place until January.

Ending the bail order will “disproportionately devastate communities of color,” San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said before the council announced its decision.

Even under the $0 bail order, prosecutors could ask judges to raise or deny bail for particular suspects they feared could be dangerous. Suspects accused of violent felonies, serious sex offenses, domestic violence, stalking, or driving under the influence were not eligible.

The council said it was ending the policy as of June 20 in part because state prisons are preparing to once again accept transfers from county jails as of June 19, which will also help with jail crowding.

The bail decision comes as voters prepare to consider in November a ballot measure that would decide whether to replace the current money bail system.

“This policy is coming to an end at a time when the racial and economic injustice of wealth-based incarceration is crystal clear,” said Jonathan Underland, spokesman for the End Money Bail campaign.

Eric Nuñez, president of the state’s police chiefs’ association, praised the courts’ reconsideration, noting that chiefs feared the bail rule “would result in inappropriate early release of potentially dangerous offenders.”

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Cantil-Sakauye announced about an hour before the votes were to be tallied on other orders dealing with evictions and foreclosures that Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders “will need more time to sort through various policy proposals.”

She delayed the decision after lawmakers and housing advocates predicted a surge in evictions and homelessness if the courts continued with plans to lift the eviction ban in early August.

California already had a massive homelessness and housing affordability crisis, said Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco, and “during this pandemic, millions of renters have been hanging by a thread.”

Chiu announced legislation Wednesday that would bar renters from being evicted for non-payment for 90 days after state and local coronavirus emergency orders end. It would give renters another 12 months before landlords could file civil actions to collect unpaid rent. Tenants would have to keep up with their current rent during that 12 months or potentially face eviction.

California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon said most of the state’s major cities still have bans on evicting those affected by the pandemic at a time when many landlords also are hurting financially. The Judicial Council “did just one big blanket cutoff,” he said, applying it to all evictions regardless of whether it was related to the virus.