Sacramento County should study Santa Clara County’s pretrial services solution

Jeff vonKaenel

Just as many families have a hard time admitting that a family member has a drinking problem, our society has a hard time facing up to the fact that there is a shortage of justice in our criminal justice system. While the laws may not be discriminatory, their enforcement is. The rich and poor have radically different experiences when arrested. And our current system can cause severe personal consequences for individuals facing prosecution for minor offenses.

The path to recovery starts with admitting there is a problem. We need to take a hard look at our criminal justice system. Fortunately, this examination has begun.

Last week, the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction went to Matthew Desmond for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which tells the stories of eight families in Milwaukee and how they are affected by poverty. Desmond also explains the inner workings of a system that enables individuals, businesses and the legal system to profit from the pain of others.

Closer to home, Saturday’s Sacramento Bee had an excellent story describing how Sacramento police issued 233 tickets for jaywalking last year “in the police district that includes North Sacramento and Del Paso Heights—nearly triple the number handed out in the entire rest of the city.” According to the Bee, “Black people received 111 of those citations, nearly 50 percent, but account for [only] about 15 percent of the area’s residents.”

Recently, the SN&R ran a story about a man whose tickets and fines for minor infractions resulting from his homelessness reached the staggering sum of $100,000. Just one $197 jaywalking ticket, for a poor person, can trigger a whole chain of disastrous events, such as losing a job or not making rent. This is not justice. We need solutions.

Santa Clara County’s Office of Pretrial Services offers one such solution, which I learned about while working on an N&R Publications project. People faced with a minor charge often do not have enough money to cover the bail or even the 10 percent to cover a bail bond. So they sit in jail. And keeping them in jail was costing Santa Clara County $204 a day for each inmate.

The county’s solution was to conduct a pretrial risk assessment, considering 16 variables such as age, marital status and employment status, for all defendants to determine how likely they were to show up for trial or commit a crime while waiting for trial. Most defendants, around 93 percent, appear in court, have no new charges and do not violate their release conditions, reports Garry Herceg, Santa Clara County’s deputy chief executive officer.

This move to a pretrial risk assessment has prevented people from losing their jobs, their homes or the custody of their children while awaiting trial for a crime that, in the end, they may not be convicted of. In addition, an independent audit found that, in a six-month period in 2012, Santa Clara County saved $33 million because of these pretrial services. If costs are similar, when adjusted for population, Sacramento County could save as much as $50 million each year by implementing such a system.

It is time we faced up to the lack of justice in our criminal justice system. A good start would be to study Santa Clara County’s pretrial services solution.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.