County Launches Campaign to Inform Detainees of Free Alternatives to Paying Bail

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Santa Clara County’s “No Cost Release” campaign is part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge


SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF.— The County of Santa Clara will launch its multi-lingual “No Cost Release” media campaign, informing individuals detained in jail and awaiting trial of their free alternatives to paying for bail. The “No Cost Release” message will be spread via video, public-access television, a web page, posters, and brochures inside jails and in the community. This media will inform detainees of their free pretrial release options, rights to free criminal defense attorneys, and access to free reentry services. This is a collaborative effort between the County of Santa Clara Offices of Pretrial Services, the Public Defender, the Sheriff and Reentry Services.

The County of Santa Clara is one of 20 jurisdictions across the country to be awarded an Innovation Fund grant by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to design and test innovative local justice reforms for safely reducing jail usage, as well as racial and ethnic disparities in their local justice systems. Until now, only information regarding commercial bail bonds and private criminal defense attorneys has been available inside the County jails. Detainees and their families were largely unaware of the free services that exist.

“Many defendants who are low risk to public safety remain in jail solely because they can’t afford to pay bail,” said Dave Cortese, President of the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors. “Detaining a significant number of people who could otherwise be safely supervised in the community, is not only detrimental to defendants, it’s costly for the County.”

In California, approximately 62 percent of the jail population is in custody pretrial. The Office of Pretrial Services estimates the cost of pretrial supervision at about $15 per day, compared to $159 for jail confinement. The County’s independent Audit Management Division estimates that, from July 1 to December 31, 2011, releasing those who qualified for own recognizance release saved the County $31.3 million in detention costs.

Pretrial officers are available in jail after booking to interview detainees about their eligibility for release on their own recognizance (O.R.), or for the Supervised Own Recognizance Program (S.O.R.P.). But often detainees or their relatives, unfamiliar with these options, pay bail to get out of jail. And because bail is set without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, that represents a greater burden for poor defendants than wealthier ones. Defendants or their families who use a bail agent are typically charged a 10% fee, which is a percentage of the actual bail amount. This money is non-refundable, even if they are found not guilty or the charges are not filed.

“As S.O.R.P. releases have increased substantially over the last 15 years, statistics show that pretrial misconduct rates and failures to appear in court have remained steady or improved,” said Aaron Johnson, Director of the Office of Pretrial Services. “Unnecessarily incarcerating individuals who are low risk to public safety, puts those individuals at higher risk of needing public support going forward.”

“Serving time in jail negatively impacts people in a variety of ways,” said Molly O’Neal, Chief Public Defender for the County of Santa Clara. “It jeopardizes their employment, which can result in them losing their housing, it impacts their children and other dependent family members, and it hinders their ability to work effectively with an attorney to develop their defense. Further, being in jail imposes an artificial incentive to plead guilty in order to get out, regardless of guilt or innocence,” O’Neal said.

Research shows that people being detained in jail also have higher rates of being convicted, are less likely to have their charges reduced, and are more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison with longer sentences than released defendants – even when the seriousness of the charge and the defendants’ criminal histories are equal.

“With our ‘No Cost Release’ campaign, we intend to increase equity for low income and homeless individuals in a criminal justice system currently weighted in favor of those who can afford commercial bail and private legal defense,” said Javier Aguirre, Director of the County’s Office of Reentry Services. “And once released from custody, we want to ensure that residents are aware of the multitude of supportive services available at the County’s Reentry Resource Center.”

The County of Santa Clara is one of 20 jurisdictions selected to be part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a national $100 million initiative that seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

Through its participation in the Safety and Justice Challenge, Santa Clara County has access to the resources, peer learning opportunities, and expertise of the Safety and Justice Challenge Network. The Urban Institute, which is managing the Innovation Fund in partnership with the Foundation, provides expert technical assistance to jurisdictions as they implement their plans.