California's court system, the nation's largest, announced a series of emergency measures this week to address vulnerabilities related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 11 emergency measures include temporarily eliminating bail for defendants charged with misdemeanors and most nonviolent felonies, conducting pretrial hearings remotely, and placing new limits on evictions and foreclosures. The California Judicial Council adopted the changes Monday. It's the policy making arm of the state's courts.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says the moves aim to reduce jail populations and protect Californians from losing their homes during the Coronavirus pandemic.
"We are at this point truly with no guidance in history, law, or precedent," Cantil-Sakauye, chair of the council, said. "And to say that there is no playbook is a gross understatement of the situation."
The most important emergency measure sets bail statewide at $0 for most misdemeanors and lower-level felony offenses. It does not apply to violent felonies or to felonies that include sex offender crimes, domestic violence, stalking, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Justice reform groups praised the moves.
"Times of crisis necessarily test our moral compass and remind us of the need to stand up for those most vulnerable and create greater visibility for those least empowered in our communities," said Miriam Aroni Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and now executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution.
California courts have until next Monday to implement the bail measure. All other court measures are effective immediately.
In 2018 California lawmakers voted to eliminate bail and give local judges discretion over when a defendant was safe to release. But the law was never implemented as bail bond companies challenged the measure and succeeded in putting the issue before voters this November.
California, like many states, has made several moves since the coronavirus outbreak to try to lower the populations of county jails and state prisons. Overcrowded conditions put inmates and staff at risk.
Almost all of the emergency court measures are set to last for 90 days after the end of the state's Covid-19 state of emergency, declared March 4 by Gov. Gavin Newsom.