Bail reform has become a growing focus for law enforcement, which says that any change must be accompanied by new policies to help keep low-level offenders out of jail, or else the new system will have unintended consequences for defendants and the community. Nevada Assembly Bill 424 follows a wave of bail reforms in California, in particular, which enacted measures that expand the use of shorter time limits for pretrial hearings, effectively closing the gap between alleged perpetrators who have money for bail and those that do not.
For a bail bond company, much of their business hinges on controlling how much money they are going to make from individuals’ bail payments. It’s clear that for the last three decades, California and Nevada have been primary battlegrounds for this debate among bail bond agents, lawyers, and activists.
In the early 1990s, the California Supreme Court ruled in People v. Hernandez that defendants have a right to a hearing before release if they’re unable to post bail, based on findings that poor people were being detained solely because of their inability to afford the payment before trial. In 2010, the California Supreme Court reversed course, ruling that the prior ruling was overreaching and that the courts should avoid the use of money for release.
In its initial ruling in Hernandez, the California Supreme Court also found that if defendants could not post bail, bail bond companies should be available to them before trial. As a result, there’s been a proliferation of nationwide bail bonds that use financial products to ensure that people are free to leave jail while awaiting trial.
The victory of Nevada Assembly Bill 424 was a major defeat for the private bail bond industry, which has fought to keep money bail in place in the states where it is legal.
How Bail Bond Agents Work
Every morning at 6:30 AM, guards at the Los Angeles County Jail in Los Angeles pull back the metal grates that cover the cells.
Bail bondsmen come by at 6:45 AM. They each have their own cage, in which they stand and wait. The cages are located in the jail, and the Bail Bonds Parole Agent (BPA), as she’s called, gets to work. She goes into the BPA office, which she shares with a handful of bail clerks and a bailiffs team. She pulls out money orders — money orders that can be used to pay bail. She gives the money to a bail bondswoman, who is waiting outside in the parking lot.
This is the way most people released from jail are released in California. After the money is collected, the BPA hands out a form that the bail bond agents fill out. Bail Bonds Parole Agents can work at both the county jail, or at the court, which is where they’re requesting that someone be released on their own recognizance. And while most people in LA County jail are free on their own recognizance, some bail bondsmen choose to work at the courthouse, where defendants are usually released on their own recognizance.
Some bail bondsmen work directly for a bail company, while others work for the court, or bail bond companies. The type of business you work in determines how much you get paid. And as you may have noticed, it also affects how much money you’re able to make.
The BPA goes into the bail bond office with the money orders that the defendant paid. Then she gives the money to the bail bondsman, who goes in with some bail bonds, and gives them to the bail agents, who have their own money orders, and collect the bail money. Most bail bonds agents are the only ones at the court on a given day. They have secured bail for a client that day and take the money to the client, while the bail agents hold onto the money orders. This is the safest way to move cash between the three of them, as all of the bail money is split evenly.
When a woman gets put in jail, not knowing when they’ll get out, that puts a huge emotional strain on a family. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support.
What Are the Pitfalls of Nevada Assembly Bill 424?
Proponents of bail reform pushed for a bill because of the way the existing system in Las Vegas and the rest of Nevada works. It’s a little bit of an unwritten rule that bail bondsmen charge exorbitant amounts to ensure that those with a financial stake in a defendant’s release won’t get their money back if they fail to show up in court. If a defendant ends up back in jail for a minor infraction, they’ll lose their place on the bond, and the costs will be higher.
Still, the hope is that creating a fair, rational system will save the state millions in the long run. The county’s nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor estimated in 2012 that California would save $114 million if criminal defendants who are likely to show up for trial but who are also able to post bail were released. Of course, the majority of defendants who are arrested are unable to post bail in a timely manner.
Since these arguments are so closely tied to the cost of doing business for the bail bonds industry, there’s always going to be some pushback against a bill like Nevada Assembly Bill 424. The bail bonds industry is lobbying the legislature to amend the bill so that those who are accused of driving under the influence are exempt from some of the new restrictions.
Is There Hope for Criminal Justice Reform?
With only a small fraction of felony cases ever being resolved through the use of a judge’s order, and more than a billion dollars in bondsharking revenue flowing through the court system, lawmakers may very well have their work cut out for them if they’re serious about reforming the national criminal justice system.
With federal prisons full and state prisons holding enough inmates to fill up tons more, there is a strong argument to be made for states to save money by having fewer prisoners. And it appears the federal government is actually preparing to shift away from its for-profit approach to prisons. This would be a particularly welcome development if they’re able to set a precedent in California that other states can follow.
Firearm sales are heavily regulated, so it’s harder to buy or make a gun than it is to get a license to drive a car. It seems odd that there is little problem with California allowing people to carry their own guns. Why, then, are we still looking at outdated gun laws? This year, the California Assembly passed a handful of gun reform bills.
Those bills are not dead yet, but they could face a tough road ahead. Two of the bills would have mandated that gun owners keep their firearms locked up at home, while another would have required background checks for anyone selling ammo online. Law enforcement groups criticized those bills as unconstitutional and unnecessary. A third bill would have banned magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
If the status quo is truly non-negotiable for the National Rifle Association and other groups like it, then the fight may be lost before the fight has begun. But there’s reason to believe that the tide of public opinion has turned in favor of gun control, and that the next generation of California and Nevada voters is tired of the state’s public figures supporting the sale of military assault rifles and large-capacity magazines.
Hopefully, there is more room for discourse in these areas, to assuage the concerns of those who feel that there is not enough gun control, and to maintain freedoms with guns that many Americans expect. Both sides will need to show flexibility, and keep coming up with creative ideas to fix problems that can’t be ignored.
In the last few months, groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence have tried to pass resolutions in support of ending the sale of large-capacity magazines, and of the various “no sales” laws that have been passed in California, New York and other states. These efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
The opposition to gun control comes in part from the belief that more laws will not lead to a decrease in federal crimes. Many believe that regulation can prevent more crime, and more importantly, many think that one solution to crime that already exists would help alleviate some of the gun violence plaguing our communities. There are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on prisons, with very little evidence that this is a viable solution.
Criminals will still find a way to get guns. But there may be a more effective way to keep those guns out of the wrong hands: by stopping the flow of illegal guns to drug cartels and gang members. That will take more than one month of lawmakers in Sacramento’s stonewalling. It will take hard-working police officers and prosecutors, with the assistance of the federal government.
Americans and criminal defense attorneys should work toward achieving the same goals: keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and keeping our communities safe.
Two bills, SB 239 and AB 205, that would expand California’s existing gun laws have been introduced and are sitting in the state Senate and Assembly committees. Imagine you are a criminal defense attorney or criminal law lawyer, and you have a client charged with murder. The prosecutor charges your client with first-degree murder, on the grounds that your client allegedly used an assault rifle during the commission of a crime. Would you argue for the defense that your client’s gun was legal at the time, that he had the right to own it, and that his possession of the gun was protected by California’s Castle Doctrine?
You might, if you could sell it back to the dealer at a steep discount. That dealer might take your client’s gun, for good reason, if you can prove that your client was the true purchaser. If you can’t, your client would be able to retain his firearm. Under current California law, people who have been convicted of any felony or misdemeanor crime can’t legally buy a gun. And people who are not allowed to buy guns can’t give one away.
But you can’t sell that weapon back to the dealer. In addition, if you are giving away an unregistered gun in California, you can be charged with a felony. There is a bill, Assembly Bill 485, that would allow for the sales of unregistered weapons to allow those people to continue to enjoy the right to keep and bear arms, while helping law enforcement enforce California’s gun laws.
In an era of tighter gun control, a broad coalition is standing up to urge Sacramento to support these bills that would help law enforcement enforce our gun laws. Criminal law attorneys have a duty to defend their clients, even if it means standing up to those who might not want to see the law change. Legislators should do the same.
Differences in Thoughts on Gun Control
There are differences in gun ownership rates along gender, political affiliation, geography, and other factors. This means that every city and town in the United States has its own gun control narrative. Yet, even though these are really important distinctions, these differences shouldn’t prevent lawmakers from pursuing common-sense reforms. Bills like Nevada Assembly Bill 424 are in the same vein as some of these common-sense bills, in that they are designed to equal the playing field for communities, keep them safer, and try to help low-level crime from disrupting families. Still, Nevada Assembly Bill 424 is quite controversial, in that it polarizes community members and constituents across party lines. Nevada Assembly Bill 424 puts to the test our beliefs about jail reform, crime, firearm sales, and safety.
However, personal protection is at the top of the list of reasons why people own guns. We have seen gun violence and mass shootings befall people of all political persuasions. Lawmakers should try to understand the perspectives of the residents of their state and consider how their proposed reforms would affect those communities.
Over the past decade, Oakland has experienced a surge in gun violence, and local criminal law attorneys, representing clients in firearm-related misdemeanors and felonies, have seen the devastation guns cause to their clients and to the victims of crimes. Across California, though, the Senate Judicial Committee has refused to consider California Assembly Bill 719, a common-sense bill introduced by assemblymember Luis Alejo that would prohibit people from selling their unregistered firearms to those who are not allowed to own them.