In summary

A constitutional amendment on the November ballot is a referendum on 2018’s Senate Bill 10, which replaces cash bail with risk assessments for detained suspects.

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By Joe Coto, Special to CalMatters

Joe Coto, former Democratic Assemblymember from San Jose and chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus, is chairman of the United Latinos Vote, He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

With a referendum, California’s Constitution gives voters the right to overturn unjust laws passed by the Legislature.  This year, we have the chance to reject a law that will make our justice system even more racially biased and burden our counties with hundreds of millions in new costs when they can least afford it.  

The law is Senate Bill 10, passed in 2018.  SB 10 would eliminate the option for bail for people who are arrested and replaces our current discretion of judges and bail hearings with computer algorithms to determine who qualifies for release pending trial.  

After its passage, more than half a million voters signed petitions to put its adoption up for a vote of the people, and thus it will appear as a ballot proposition in November.  A “No” vote rejects SB 10, and I urge all Californians who care about civil rights and criminal justice reform to join me in voting “No.” 

Before my election to the Legislature, I served as superintendent of two large school districts in Northern California and witnessed first-hand how the so-called “War on Drugs” destroyed a whole generation of young people.  Harsh jail sentences, even for low-level offenders, put many on a path toward recidivism, unemployment and a cycle of poverty.  

While government policies on addiction treatment, decriminalization and sentencing reform have changed much over the past several years, there is no denying that people of color are disproportionately more likely to receive longer prison terms and spend more time in pretrial detention.  SB 10 would make this much worse by increasing the time African Americans, Latinos and immigrants spend in jail pending trial.  

The biggest flaw in SB 10 is the use of computer programs to make important justice decisions.  These are the same type of algorithms that Big Data companies use to bombard us with ads every day.  While I might appreciate an algorithm recommending books or television shows, I have long been against their use in making determinations over insurance rates, and whether or not someone gets a home loan or credit card.  

The use of algorithms has been proven to discriminate against the poor, minorities and people who live in certain neighborhoods.  Relying on algorithms to make important criminal justice decisions is even more appalling.  

If SB 10 is not rejected by voters this November, pretrial incarceration will increase for many in our most vulnerable communities, and our already overburdened court system will face even more delays.  It could be days, if not weeks, for some defendants to secure their release pending trial.  And each day someone is held in jail increases the chance that they will lose their jobs, fall behind on their bills and get trapped in a cycle of poverty.  

The dangers are magnified in the current COVID-19 crisis, as more crowded jails mean more chances for infection for defendants and correctional officers.  

The pandemic has also spawned a new crisis for our state and local governments as they grapple with lost revenue and the painful realization that they will have to massively cut essential public services.  SB 10 would make the budget financial crisis even worse by saddling counties with hundreds of millions of dollars in new costs.  

Under SB 10, Sacramento forces counties to build and administer the new system, but leaves local governments holding the bag.  New Jersey, a state with fewer people than Los Angeles County, spent $125 million in just the first year it implemented a similar system.  Unless voters reject it this November, SB 10’s costs will be many times higher, and the bill will come due at the worst possible time.  

California voters must reject SB 10 at the polls this November.  It will lead to more racially biased outcomes in our criminal justice system, and the price tag is far too high.  Please join me in voting “No.”  


Joe Coto, former Democratic Assemblymember from San Jose and chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus, is chairman of the United Latinos Vote, He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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