Yes on Proposition 25
By Tanja Heitman

Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman

As a life-long professional in community corrections, I have seen firsthand how California’s current bail system is often unfair, costly, and doesn’t prioritize protecting public safety. We have a chance to change that on our November ballots by voting Yes on Proposition 25. A yes vote on Proposition 25 simply means a vote to uphold the well-balanced and thoughtful legislation, Senate Bill 10, passed by the State Legislature and signed into law by Governor Brown in 2018.

Opponents of SB 10 qualified a referendum to try to stop California’s bail reform law from being implemented. If voters approve Prop. 25 with a yes vote, SB 10 will finally be enacted to make our justice system safer and fairer. It will replace our current bail system with a system that balances safety, fairness, and the rights of defendants and victims. It will replace our current money bail system with a new system where judges make pre-trial release determinations based on a person’s flight risk and risk to public safety.

One of the tools to determine a person’s risk to public safety will be the use of a validated assessment tool. Validated assessment tools are a scientific tool that considers myriad factors to help professionals understand the risk to re-offend an individual may pose to our communities. Using objective factors to inform courts about safety and flight risks, these assessment tools will inform a judge’s decision, not replace it. Judges make decisions, not computer algorithms.

Assessment tools help judges understand the factors an individual has that contributed to their involvement with the justice system. This ensures public safety is the top priority for pre-trial release, rather than the basis on the individual’s ability to afford bail.

Currently, if someone does not pose a serious public safety risk and sits in jail for weeks before their case is heard, they can lose their job, home, positive engagement with their family, and possibly exacerbate mental health or addiction issues — which only makes people more likely to commit crime in the future, not less likely.

Prop. 25 also requires independent oversight, particularly on its impact by race, ethnicity, gender, and income level — to ensure more fairness in our system. It contains checks and balances on California’s courts requiring data collection for improvement. This ensures we are weeding out any unintended biases that might exist. It also addresses the recent California Supreme Court decision which requires California to fix our current bail system.

Sadly, we sometimes see that the current system can force some innocent people to plead guilty to crimes they may not have committed: either because they can’t afford to pay a non-refundable fee of $5,000 or more to post bail or they can’t afford to stay in jail and risk losing their jobs or home while they wait for trial. All of these factors make our communities less safe, not more safe.

With this proposition, rehabilitative supports and supervision can be adjusted based on what an individual may need to stay safe and keep others safe in our communities. Grounded in evidence and research that ensures community safety for the long-term, this system will help low-risk offenders get the rehabilitation they need.

In Santa Barbara County, we have been fortunate enough to be a part of the Judicial Council of California’s pretrial pilot project. This means that locally, we have already been implementing the majority of what a yes vote on Proposition 25 will put in place for the rest of our state. In collaboration with the court and the other public safety agencies, we have successfully demonstrated the improvements that can be achieved through pretrial assessment and supervision strategies.

We have seen there are more effective methods of ensuring a defendant shows up for their day in court. Since January of this year, we have completed over 1,900 assessments and supervised over 1,000 individuals so they could return home, continue working, and take care of their families while they go to court. The vast majority of individuals successfully completed their pretrial supervision time without any difficulties, on average only one percent of those supervised had their supervision terminated due to a new crime. Santa Clara and San Joaquin counties have both seen similar positive results with their pretrial programs over even longer periods of time.

In Santa Barbara County, our goal is to adopt policies and practices that help us achieve sustainable public safety. What does sustainable public safety look like? It means dangerous offenders stay in custody while lower-risk individuals get the help they need to rehabilitate and become proactive members of our community, engaged positively with their families, and contribute to the betterment of our society.

Probation departments have been doing this work for decades. Probation officers and pretrial staff have a unique set of skills that help provide accountability where needed, as well as supports and rehabilitation to help our clients achieve long-term success. This is a research-based approach to public safety that promotes positive and long-term behavior change. This is true and sustainable safety in our communities. This is the shared vision for safety we all want for our families, friends, and neighbors. Help California work toward that shared vision by voting yes on Prop 25.

Tanja Heitman is Southern Region Chair and Vice-Chair of the Legislative Committee for the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC).

You can read a version of this opinion piece on the Santa Barbara Independent.