Prison Overcrowding & Bail Bonds

201512.17

Man sitting in jailCalifornia Governor Jerry Brown, addressing a recent meeting of federal Ninth Circuit trial and appellate judges on prison litigation, argued that California law has “gone too far” in requiring determinate or fixed-term sentences in criminal cases and that inmate conduct should be a factor in the determination of how much jail time to serve.

California correctional policy switched in 1977 during Brown’s previous gubernatorial tenure from indeterminate to determinate sentencing.  This prison litigation is also having an impact on bail bonds.

Indeterminate Sentencing

Under indeterminate sentencing, California convicts in for long terms of imprisonment appeared periodically before parole boards, which decided whether sufficient rehabilitation warranted their conditional release back into civil society before completion of their full terms. Indeterminate sentencing was once the prevalent rule in every state and in the federal courts. Statutes provided for minimum and maximum sentences, but judges had discretion to select options of fines, probation, and imprisonment, leaving to parole boards the decisions on actual release dates.

Determinate Sentencing

Under determinate sentencing, a jail or prison sentence once ordered for a definite term cannot be changed or modified by a parole board or any other state agency. A determinate sentence of six months in the county jail imprisons the inmate for no more nor less than six months in any ensuing circumstances.

Pros and Cons

Indeterminate sentences hope to rehabilitate offenders who can respond well to punishment and learn from it. Corrections operators favor indeterminate sentencing because the prospect of early release incentivizes inmates to earn good-conduct credit. The motivational goal is that inmates who make the most progress win parole closest to their minimum terms. The decision on release considers the inmate’s crime, criminal history, resources, character references, and conduct in prison. Complainants involved in the crime may submit statements. In theory, a careful evaluation precedes a decision to release any inmate into the community.

Critics of indeterminate sentencing say, as Governor Brown said when he argued for the 1977 switchover, that it vests too much power in the parole board and produces too many arbitrary and discriminatory results for minorities and inmates without privileged connections. At the Ninth Circuit conclave, he said that the fixed-term criminal sentences he had encouraged as governor more than three decades before glutted state prisons with long-term inmates and caused the current California prison overcrowding crisis.

Consequences of Overcrowding

In October 2006 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed that because of severe and intolerable overcrowding “a State of Emergency exists within the State of California’s prison system.”  In 2010 a three-judge federal district court ordered the state to abate two violations of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment by reducing its prison population of 156,000 inmates by about 46,000, a number still excessive at 137.5 percent of design capacity but in the court’s estimate the best abatement reasonably feasible.

In 2011 the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the district court order in an opinion noting that “The order in this case does not necessarily require the State to release any prisoners. The State may comply by raising the design capacity of its prisons or by transferring prisoners to county facilities.”

How California’s Prison Overcrowding May Affect Bail Bonds

Judges set bail bonds for pretrial release of defendants brought before the courts charged with criminal offenses as security for their appearances as required. Defendants unable to post their bonds typically remain in pretrial detention in local county or municipal jails. In California the transfer of inmates from state penitentiaries to county jails to abate the prison overcrowding crisis can only reduce the space available for pretrial detention. While the crisis continues, California judges are more likely than otherwise to favor pretrial release on nonfinancial conditions in close cases.