New county bail policy could get costly

A new approach to bail in Sonoma County Superior Court could soon raise the price of freedom. Judges will start observing strict time limits on how long bail remains in place, requiring new bail to be posted if prosecutors do not bring charges within 15 days of a first court appearance. Those who can’t afford to pay a second time will likely be forced to await a decision from behind bars, straining jail resources and driving up costs for taxpayers.

“It’s a de facto doubling of the bail schedule,” said Sebastopol defense attorney Omar Figueroa, who was among a group of lawyers who voiced concerns this week at a Sonoma County Bar Association meeting. The change was announced by Judge Shelly Averill, who will be presiding over a special early case resolution court in January. Now, judges allow defendants to post bail just once while prosecutors and police sort out any charges during post- arrest investigations. Such investigations for crimes ranging from drug possession to manslaughter can take months. But that practice does not meet the requirements of the law, Averill said. Bonds guaranteeing a person will return to court are exonerated — or expire — automatically if prosecutors haven’t acted within the two-week period, she said. Beyond that time, bail companies can no longer be held liable if the person becomes a fugitive. Judges realized the lapse and will now correct it, she said. New bail will be required to avoid jail if formal charges are filed later, she said.

“It’s something we’ve not been doing,” she told lawyers at the bar association meeting. It was not immediately known how many people were awaiting charges on expired bail. The shift could be a boon to the bail company owners, who collect a nonrefundable 10 percent fee for each bond they post. But they worried it could also hurt the industry if bail is perceived as unaffordable. “It could make the process of bail so that it’s no longer relied upon,” said Dale Miller, owner of Santa Rosa-based Romelli Bail Bonds. However, Miller said there are ongoing discussions about making second bails less expensive.

And court officials said defendants might be eligible to go free without bail under a separate pretrial release program run by the Sheriff’s Office and Probation Department that is coming online. In that program, defendants are evaluated when they are booked into the jail about the level of risk they pose to the community and released without bail by a judge at their first appearance. Still, critics said people who post bail would not be covered by that program because they will not be evaluated. Figueroa, who specializes in marijuana law, said people awaiting charges on cultivation or sales would likely be most affected because they are often the most time-consuming. He said prosecutors routinely seek extensions while they take up to two months to determine whether people had medical recommendations for cannabis or were growing illegally. “It will enrich bail bonds companies while sticking taxpayers with the bill for anybody who can’t afford to post bail a second time,” he said. Another defense attorney, Ben Adams of Santa Rosa, worried his clients could get stuck in a “never-ending loop” as bail is exonerated every 15 days. The end result, he said, is that people of lesser means will fill the jail at public expense.

“It just seems so fundamentally wrong to me,” Adams said. “I think it’s a giant mistake.”