Bail Industry Fights SB 10

Opponents Gathering Signatures for Repeal

Santa Barbara County Jail

Paul Wellman

Santa Barbara County Jail

Martin Basaldua, owner and founder of Superior Bail Bonds, spends two hours every day gathering signatures to try and stop Senate Bill 10. The new law, which goes into effect in October 2019, eliminates cash bail in California and means the end of Basaldua’s family business and the bail industry as a whole. But neither is disappearing quietly. Agents across the state are gathering signatures for a repeal of SB 10 in 2020. “I spent 15 minutes with just one person,” said Basaldua. “I educate voters on how bad [it is] and how much opposition it has.”

Jae Brattain, owner of Absolutely Affordable Bail Bonds, has also been collecting signatures. “It doesn’t make any sense,” said Brattain, who describes SB 10 as “detrimental to California residents.” Not only will it infringe on people’s right to bail, said the bond agents, but it will also cost taxpayers billions. Initial estimates of the cost to taxpayers for supervision of defendants released pretrial had been around $1 billion, said Basaldua, who stated estimates are now up near $3 billion.

While both bondsmen are insistent SB 10 will have detrimental effects, implementation details, development of the risk assessment tools, and funding are still very much in the preliminary stages. “There are still important procedures and crime definitions that must be developed by the state’s Judicial Council and California counties,” said Sheriff Bill Brown, “so to some extent the devil will be in the details.”

Currently, a bail payment to the court lets a defendant get out of jail, and the court holds the money until the defendant has made all court appearances. Defendants can use a bail bond, typically a payment of 10 percent of the bail amount, to be released; if they fail to show, cosigners on the bond, usually family members, owe the full amount to the bail agent. Agencies often advocate to have the defendant released promptly after the bond is posted and work with the defendant to ensure they show up for court.

In 2016, a yearlong study backed by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye found that the state’s bail system is “unsafe and unfair” and is dependent on a defendant’s finances rather than whether a defendant is a flight or safety risk. SB 10 was proposed and signed into law to level the playing field between the rich and poor, and to reduce pretrial incarceration. Once SB 10 is in effect, defendants lose the ability to purchase their freedom via bail. Instead, they will undergo a “risk assessment” and be released or retained accordingly. Released defendants would be placed under pretrial supervision.

Basaldua believes that SB 10 will not reduce incarceration but will instead lead to an increase in pretrial incarceration and, consequently, an increase in “forced” guilty pleas. Under the bail system, there must be “clear and convincing” evidence that an individual is a threat to public safety before a judge can deny bail. Now, no evidence will be needed to deny release, said private attorney Steve Balash, who describes his position on SB 10 as “very pessimistic.”

Basaldua and Brattain both agree that bail is in need of reform, but they point out that each county sets its own bail schedule. Bail amounts for the same crime can vary by more than $25,000 from one county to the next. Basaldua supports bail on a sliding scale based on income, and he’s convinced eliminating bail will not solve any problems.

Beyond posting bail bonds, Basaldua and Brattain provide their clients with guidance through the court systems. “We work with customers and educate them,” said Basaldua, who sometimes advises families to not purchase a bond. “We never force anyone to do anything.” Helping people is a big reason Basaldua got into the business. Even if cash bail is eliminated, he plans to manage his existing customers beyond October 2019. “I just won’t be bringing in any income,” he said.