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Pretrial Release in California

Summary

To further reduce reliance on incarceration without compromising public safety, state policymakers are currently considering reforming California’s pretrial system. Key questions for reform include whether the state holds too many defendants in jail pending trial and whether bail is an equitable form of pretrial release.

This report uses newly available data to provide information about pretrial release in California and to give policymakers a better understanding of the defendants who tend to be released and the form of release they secure. Examining jail bookings and releases from 11 counties from 2011 to 2015, this study finds:

  • Overall, 41.5 percent of individuals booked on misdemeanors or felonies are released pretrial. The most common types of pretrial release include cite and release after booking (46.6%), bail (27.8%), and release on recognizance (15.9%).
  • Pretrial release is more common for less serious offenses. About half of individuals booked on misdemeanors were released pretrial, compared with 29.8 percent of those booked on felonies.
  • For more serious offenses, bail is the predominant form of pretrial release. Although pretrial release rates are low overall for more serious offenses, those who secure release tend to do so through bail. This is true for individuals charged with felonies or serious, violent, or sexual offenses. In contrast, the most common form of pretrial release for misdemeanors is cite and release.
  • Pretrial release is less common for those with active warrants, holds, or supervision violations at booking. Among those with active warrants, about one-third (33.7%) are released pretrial. Pretrial release for those with holds (17.3%) or supervision violations (15.8%) is even less common.
  • Pretrial release rates across demographic groups merit further study. Thirty-eight percent of Latinos and 33.7 percent of African Americans are released pretrial, compared with 48.9 percent of whites and 54.6 percent of Asian Americans. But gaps in pretrial release rates for Latinos and African Americans narrow to less than 2 percentage points, compared with whites, after we account for differences in offense characteristics, booking status, and the month and county of booking.

Pretrial risk assessment has been cited as a potential tool to help law enforcement and the courts identify defendants who pose a low risk to public safety, are likely to appear for their court date, and can therefore await trial in the community. Future PPIC research will further examine the relationship between pretrial release and public safety risk for different groups of offenders. As policymakers consider changes to California’s pretrial practices, a more comprehensive portrait of how the state’s current system functions can help clarify whether reforms are likely to improve public safety and ensure court appearances.

This research was supported with funding from the National Institute of Justice.

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