After two years of zero bail for most misdemeanors and some felonies, the regular bail schedule has returned and officials predict it may bring with it a shift in local crime.

During the pandemic, the Santa Monica jail released most criminals on zero bail under an emergency County-wide ordinance intended to limit the spread of COVID in incarcerated populations. 

The temporary elimination of bail applied to most misdemeanors and traffic offenses as well as many non-violent felonies. It expired on July 1.

Local officials say the return of regular bail requirements could lead to a decrease in repeat offenders for low level crimes and an increase in the number of people who show up to their initial court date. It may also provide more opportunities for service providers to offer in jail interventions and connect individuals experiencing homelessness and/or substance dependence to resources.

“We are hopeful that this [zero bail expiration] will help deter and curtail some of the lawlessness, crime and quality of life issues our community is experiencing,” said SMPD Lt. Rudy Flores.  

Santa Monica’s jail is a pre-arraignment holding facility. Individuals held in the jail either post bail and agree to show up to their court date or they are transported to court to be arraigned within 48 hours of their arrest. If they are booked for a felony, their case will be referred to the District Attorney’s office. If they are booked for a misdemeanor, the City Attorney’s Office may prosecute their case at LAX Airport Court. 

Jenna Grigsby, chief of the Criminal Division of the City Attorney’s Office, said that during the emergency bail schedule there was an uptick in bench warrants issued for individuals who were arrested in Santa Monica and failed to appear at their initial court date.

“There is some indication that especially for our quality of life crimes, like vandalism, petty theft, camping in public, being in the park after dark, trespassing, things like that, that there was an increase in folks not coming to court on their original court date,” said Grigsby.

Officials from the Santa Monica Police Department said that the elimination of bail for many crimes may have led to an increase in repeat offenders.

“Violators were immediately cited out and released here in our city, with a promise to appear in court at a later date, so for many of the arrests our officers made, the arrestee would be released prior to the officer finishing his/her report,” said SMPD Lt. Rudy Flores. “You can see how this can potentially cause a repeat offender issue, especially if violators felt there were no immediate consequences to their criminal behavior.”

From the perspective of the City Attorney’s Office, the ability to transport someone from jail to court within 48 hours is a positive thing.

“I think that there is something to be said about swift justice,” said Grigbsy. “And I think having the ability to take people immediately from jail to face the consequences of their actions is helpful to change behavior, whether that’s through rehab, jail, mental health treatment, whatever it is.”

Grigsby said another challenging aspect of prosecution during the pandemic was the extension of many court dates from a 21 window following a citation to a 120 day window. From her perspective, this lowers the likelihood of people showing up to their court date. The 12 mile distance from Santa Monica to the Airport Courthouse poses an additional barrier. 

“The fact that you get cited out means that it’s harder to get to court for anybody, whether you are, you know, working a full time job, whether you don’t have a car, whether you’re unhoused,” said Grigsby, later adding “When you are transported directly from Santa Monica… to Airport Court by the Santa Monica Police Department, it ensures that you actually show up for that court date.”

The return of bail will also provide more opportunities for the City of Santa Monica’s in jail intervention programs, which seek to break cycles of repeat incarceration.

A key program under this umbrella is the Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) initiative. This is a County funded diversion program that offers qualifying individuals the opportunity to have their criminal filings dismissed in exchange for committing to an individualized 90 day treatment program. Treatment could include a detox program, mental health program, or housing placement. 

ATI applies to individuals experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, or substance abuse who commit most misdemeanors and some low level felonies such as theft. Individuals who opt into the program will be transported directly from jail to their treatment site. 

Santa Monica also has a data sharing program called the Santa Monica Connect Application, which tracks police and fire department encounters with around 100 chronically homeless individuals living in the City. If one of these individuals is arrested, their case worker receives a notification and can go visit them in jail and work on a care plan. 

Lastly, Santa Monica has a Homeless Community Court, where chronically homeless individuals can have their misdemeanor quality of life cases waived in return for working on a list of goals that help them move towards a stable housing placement. This might include applying for housing resources, attending substance use counseling, meeting regularly with a case manager and showing up to follow-up hearings.

Clara@smdp.com