More than two years after instituting policies to keep more nonviolent offenders out of jail during the pandemic, California’s biggest metropolitan areas are making a U-turn amid rising crime.
Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Clara are among the counties that have stopped setting zero bail for certain misdemeanors and nonviolent felony offenses, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Such pandemic-era policies were separate from criminal justice reform moves over the past few years that have included laws limiting the use of bail and new approaches by district attorneys who won office on platforms de-emphasizing incarceration. Advocates said harsh prison sentences did little to reduce crime and that bail was unfair for people too poor to pay it.
The pandemic policies were public-health measures meant to depopulate jail quickly because they were sites of many COVID outbreaks.
The U.S. jail population plunged 25 percent in 2020 from mid-2019, to about 550,000, its lowest level in nearly a decade.
California counties that are home to some of the state’s biggest cities kept the policies in place until this summer, after increases in crime led to public calls for a tougher approach.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, a Democrat, said the pandemic jail policies were among the reasons that 43 people were arrested and then released without bail on at least 10 separate occasions between January 2020 and April 2022. Officials of Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, disputed his claims.
“The zero-bail experiment largely failed,” said Liccardo. “There is a compelling reason to rethink cash bail to ensure it does not perpetuate the racial and economic inequities inherent in the criminal justice system, but we have seen too many violent and repeat offenders put out into our community without sufficient supervision, drug treatment or constraints.”
Nationwide, jail populations have risen but were 15 percent below their prepandemic levels as of the end of 2021, says the Prison Policy Initiative.
Homicide rates have increased nationwide over the past two years, but have edged down in the first half of 2022, says the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams wants the state to do more and has been drawing attention to examples of suspects who were released and went on to commit other crimes.
“Time and again our police officers are making arrests, and then the person who is arrested for assault, felonious assault, robberies, gun possession, they’re finding themselves back on the street,” Adams said.
Some criminologists say anecdotes aren’t evidence that bail policies are behind the nationwide rise in homicides. “If the rationale for moving back from bail reform is to reduce crime, I don’t think there’s much evidence to justify that approach,” said criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.