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California sets zero bail for many offenses to help limit inmates during pandemic

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(NBC Palm Springs) — To limit the spread of the coronavirus in jails statewide by limiting the number of inmates, California’s Judicial Council moved Monday to set bail at zero for most misdemeanor and lower-level felonies.

During a teleconference Monday afternoon, the council considered 11 emergency rules designed to ensure public safety in the courts and jails while preserving civil rights.

As Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye opened the session, she said the group was working swiftly, but deliberately.

“(We are) trying our best to preserve rights and ultimately preserve lives,” the chief justice said. “We are at this point truly with no guidance in either history, law or precedent. And to say that there is no playbook is a gross understatement of the situation.”

The council’s first vote was to suspend foreclosures and evictions statewide, as a way to reinforce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order to delay such actions against California renters and homeowners.

All of the rules under consideration came at the request of Cantil- Sakauye, the council chair, and by recommendation of the chairs of six internal committees, according to the posted agenda.

“The Judicial Council should take these temporary actions in order to protect the health and safety of the public, court employees, attorneys, litigants, and judicial officers, as well as staff and inmates in detention facilities, and law enforcement during the state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the chief justice stated in her request.

Other proposed emergency rules would require local courts to set up remote hearings via technology and allow counsel to appear on behalf of defendants in pretrial proceedings — as part of a bid to limit the number of people in courtrooms. The council is also considering actions designed to prioritize some hearings — including juvenile proceedings — while postponing less pressing matters.

This is the second emergency meeting of the group. On March 23, Cantil- Sakauye suspended all jury trials in California’s superior courts for 60 days to allow courts to immediately adopt new rules to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That same day, Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile signed an order restricting access to all Los Angeles County courthouses to judges, commissioners, court staff and authorized people — including members of the media — until further notice, while also mandating social distancing of at least 6 feet.

Two days later, Los Angeles-based unions representing prosecutors, public defenders and city attorneys called for a complete closure of local courts, claiming the mandate was not being followed and blasting the superior court’s failure to accommodate appearances by phone and video conference.

The president of the L.A. County Public Defender Union, Nikhil Ramnaney, called the change to bail schedules statewide — a reduction already adopted in L.A. County late last week — an important step. But he also noted that it applies only to new cases.

“It still leaves thousands of people in local custody throughout the state who were arrested and had bail set prior to the amendment,” Ramnaney said. “We need to make sure that these people — charged with identical offenses and who do not pose any risk to public safety — are expedited for release. We believe that cash bail is clearly discriminatory against indigent persons and these discriminatory effects have been especially demonstrated during the emergency.”

The chief justice is expected to summarize the new rules in an order or public statement after the final votes.

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