This paper explains how the courts in California are organized, particularly the Superior Courts system, and describes the method of determining a defendant’s bail, as well as considering the fairness of that method.
Description of the Superior Court System
The California Supreme Court is the highest court, supported by appeal courts and by a system of superior courts in each county, which have jurisdiction over both civil and criminal cases. In 2001, all 58 California counties merged their municipal and superior courts into a unified superior court per county. Overall, there are 400 superior courts locations, overseen by almost 1,500 judges. The superior courts also hear appeals from small claims courts. Any appeals arising from superior courts cases are submitted to the appeals courts. However, cases that might involve the death penalty are appealed directly to California’s Supreme Court (“The Court System”, 2004).
Superior Courts can be further classified into particular functional types, as follows (“The Court System”, 2004): Family Law Courts: handle all domestic violence, divorce, child custody& support cases; Juvenile Courts: deal with all cases involving juvenile matters; Criminal Courts: handle all cases of misdemeanors and/or felonies; Small Claims Courts: Mostly cases about money disputes under $5,000; Traffic Courts: offences can include infractions, misdemeanors and felonies; Drug Treatment Courts: an expanding part of the courts system; linked to the state’s alcohol and drug treatment services.
Determination of Bail
The “Felony and Misdemeanor Bail Schedule” (Jan 2013), states that bail is set according to two separate schedules: one for misdemeanors, the other for felonies. Taking the misdemeanors schedule first, the bail amounts set are generally according to the maximum incarceration duration applicable for the particular offense. These range from $1,500 for a “90-day” offense up to $3,500 for a “365-day” offense. In addition, for violation of misdemeanor probation, the bail amount is $5,000. Amounts can be set for specific misdemeanors such as possessing weapons on a school campus, cruelty to animals, etc ($5,000), up to a maximum of $7,500 for the misdemeanor of vehicular manslaughter. If more than one offense is involved, the highest bail figure for any single offense is used (per case). If more than one case is involved, the amounts are then cumulative.
The same Bail Schedule document portrays a more complex picture for bail in respect of felonies. For the most serious offenses such as “murder with special circumstances”, bail is prohibited altogether. Also, as a general principle, if the defendant is charged with multiple offenses, the bail set for each is calculated and the amounts added to arrive at a total bail figure. There is a similar scale to that set for misdemeanors in terms of maximum incarceration durations. For felonies the amounts range from $5,000 (3 years or less) up to $1 million for life sentences. (Bail is prohibited for life without parole). In addition to that general schedule, there are specific figures set for specific named felonies. These vary according to the Code under which the felony is classified and the felony within that Code. For example, under the Penal Code amounts range from $35,000 for child beating, to $100,000 for assaulting the President or other government official. Under the Health & Safety Code (drugs offenses), the amounts range from $20,000 to $1 million. Then under the Vehicle Code, bail amounts are between $50,000 and $1 million. Any of the aforementioned amounts can be increased considerably (and cumulatively) for what are referred to as “enhancements to felonies”, e.g. for using a firearm, or having prior convictions.
The bail system seems for the most part reasonable and fair, bearing in mind that the public needs protecting from some individuals who might commit further serious offenses if allowed their freedom. However, there are anomalies. For example it seems inequitable that assaulting a government official is considered three times more serious than child beating.
“Felony and Misdemeanor Bail Schedule.” (Jan 2013). Superior Court of California: County of Riverside. Retrieved from http://www.riverside.courts.ca.gov/bailschedule.pdf
“The Court System.” (2004). California NOW. Retrieved from http://www.canow.org/e107_files/downloads/understandingcourtsystem.pdf