Is San Francisco DA Gascón’s Bail Reform Working?

The rate of pretrial releases has risen since the city’s courts have been using a risk-assessment tool, but some of reformer DA George Gascón’s assistants still are insisting on defendants’ being held on cash bail.

Instead of starting his third semester at community college this fall, Quinntez Woodson sat in a San Francisco jail cell on a firearms charge, held on $35,000 bail that he could not afford, reports Slate. He sat there for more than two months, losing his apartment, his chance to study, and a job at Walmart. After a few weeks in jail, Woodson was offered a deal: If he pleaded guilty, he would be released on a probation-only sentence. More than 90 percent of state and federal criminal cases are resolved this way. Eventually, Woodson’s grandmother bailed him out so that he could be freed pending trial.

Woodson was arrested in a place where District Attorney George Gascón has called cash bail “inherently unfair and archaic.” Cases like Woodson’s cast doubt on whether Gascón’s rhetoric matches his line attorneys’ day-to-day actions, Slate says. He helped bring a risk-assessment tool to the city. The Public Safety Assessment algorithm, developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, gauges a defendant’s risk of skipping town or reoffending before trial based on data including age, pending charge, prior convictions, and failures to appear in court. Since San Francisco began using the tool last year, the rate of defendants released from custody before court hearings has jumped from 29 to 61 percent. Despite the huge increase in the rate of pretrial release on Gascón’s watch, defense attorneys say some line prosecutors still ask for money bail for defendants with low PSA scores. Woodson scored a 1—the lowest score possible—for risk of missing trial, and a 2 out of 6 for risk of committing another crime. The tool recommended release on his own recognizance, without supervision. The prosecutor recommended the judge set full bail, $75,000.