To reform a bail system that critics say disproportionately punishes poor people, District Attorney George Gascón is touting a new approach: An algorithm that recommends how to set bail by factoring in a person's pending charges, age, rap sheet, and record of appearing in court. "When we talk about releasing people based on money, we are really ignoring the risk that that person presents or does not present to public safety,” he told CBS5 last month."
A federal class-action lawsuit alleged last year that San Francisco's bail system, sometimes disparagingly referred to as "Money Bail," was unconstitutional. Officials tend to agree with a negative assessment of the status quo. “Money bail doesn’t necessarily deal with risk,” Gascón told KQED in light of the lawsuit. “You can have people that are very risky but are financially capable of posting bail, and they’re going to get released. And you’ve got people on the other end that may not be a risk, but they may not have the monetary ability to post bail, and they remain in custody for days, weeks and sometimes longer.” For her part, current Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, then Deputy Sheriff, told KQED that “the current system is inherently unfair.”
Now the Chronicle is highlighting Gascón's approach as it goes into effect. The algorithm was developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation of Texas, and “the idea is to provide judges with objective, data-driven, consistent information that can inform the decisions they make," Arnold Foundation vice president of criminal justice Matt Alsdorf tells the Chronicle. "What I’ve seen in other jurisdictions and what I hope to see in San Francisco is that over time ... people will start to see the validity of the tool and start to buy in more and more.”
Sheriff Hennessy says an estimated 80 to 85 percent of inmates in city jails are awaiting trial, many because they are unable to pay bail. While that itself my seem punitive, the effects of an oftentimes arbitrary bail system can extend further. “If we want to take on mass incarceration this is where we should start,” Santa Clara University law professor David Bell told CBS5 last month. “Even a short time in jail increases the risk of criminal activity pre-trial. Longer pre-trial stints are associated with loss of employment and housing.”