In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, California has sought to reduce county jail populations through a range of actions, including a “zero bail” emergency measure. This means that most misdemeanor and lower-level felonies currently have no bail amount associated with them, and that suspects are more likely to be cited and released instead of booked into jail. This new practice, along with decreases in crime and local directives to reduce arrests and bookings, appear to have drastically reduced the number of people sent to jail at this time.
A number of offenses—including felony burglary, driving under the influence, and the most serious sexual and violent crimes—can still receive a bail amount above zero. And law enforcement can still book someone into jail even for a so-called zero bail offense—but the arresting law enforcement agency (or the district attorney) has to request to a judge to set a bail amount. If the court denies the request then the suspect has to be released.
To get a sense of the magnitude of zero bail’s effect on releases and bookings, we looked at data from the Monthly Arrest and Citations Register (from 2016, the most recent available). These data do not perfectly identify zero bail offenses or the offenses excluded from the zero bail list. But they do allow us to identify an upper bound of the impact on jail bookings.
Of the roughly 1,140,000 arrests that we analyzed, about 791,000 were booked into jail (about 69% of arrests). About 317,000 of these bookings (or 40%) were for offenses in which bail is still is an option today. The remaining 474,000 bookings (or 60%) were for zero bail offenses.
This suggests that today, if the arrest offense distribution is currently the same as it was in 2016 and there are practically no requests to set bail for zero bail offenses, then only about 28% of arrests in California would lead to a booking into jail.
In 2016, misdemeanors made up the majority of arrests booked into jail (about 77%) for what are now zero bail crimes. Of these, the most common offenses were drugs (almost 28%), failure to appear in court on a misdemeanor offense (about 21%), drunk and disorderly conduct (12%), and traffic and petty theft (each about 5%). The most common felony offense bookings now set at zero bail were drug offenses (almost 30%), theft (22%), and vehicle theft (roughly 14%).
While crime appears to be down since the COVID-19 outbreak, and the type of crimes committed during the pandemic almost surely have changed, our examination of 2016 arrest data suggests that the implementation of zero bail—in addition to the effects of local directives and fewer crimes—means that far fewer people are being booked into jail at this time.
Recent statewide data from the Board of State and Community Corrections supports this conclusion, as it reveals that weekly jail bookings have dropped from 17,140 the week of February 23 to 6,880 the week of April 12 (a decrease of about 60%, consistent with our data analysis).
These findings suggest that the zero bail measure is playing a significant role in reducing crowding in California’s county jails and helping to make social distancing more achievable. Going forward, it will be important to monitor other possible impacts this reduction in jail bookings might have, including on homelessness, public safety, and access to health care.