ST. GEORGE —A bail and pretrial release bill that limits the use of cash bail for criminal suspects in Utah passed the Senate Wednesday, joining the wave of states and local jurisdictions that have undertaken some form of bail reform over the past few years.
HB 206, Bail and Pretrial Release Amendments, was first introduced to ensure individuals are given “the least restrictive conditions of release” prior to their court hearing while still maintaining public safety, was passed shortly after 10:30 a.m Wednesday.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, told St. George News the reason the bill was introduced is that the bail system in place “disproportionately harms the poor” and allows those with the means to post bail to be released “regardless of whether they are a danger.”
“They are simply incarcerated because they don’t have money, and that troubles me,” Pitcher said.
On the flip side, she said, those with money are released because they have the means to post bail, regardless of any possible risk to public safety they impose.
“Money does nothing to account for public safety concern,” Pitcher said.
The bill would also require law enforcement to issue a citation in lieu of arrest for those charged with lower-level misdemeanors, while still retaining discretion to decide whether there should be an exception if the officer believes the individual being arrested will likely fail to appear in court, for example.
Instead, courts will need to seek other methods of pretrial release conditions on a more individualized basis.
Removing a monetary bail system is not a new idea, she said, and in fact, the federal system hasn’t used a monetary bail system since the 1980s.
She also said that while many other states have passed bail amendments, Utah’s bill came with modifications that were implemented, including one that says judges maintain the ability to detain a defendant charged with certain felonies while limiting their discretionary authority. This differs from bail reform in other states like New York, a state that removed judicial discretion altogether.
According to opponents of the bill, including the American Bail Coalition, bail reforms have been heralded as a better system for those charged, but the reality is very different. Using New York’s bail bond reform as an example, the results of which were “nothing less than horrendous.”
Pitcher, who is a prosecutor in Davis County, said the bail industry doesn’t want the system to change.
“It’s no secret that the bail industry has an economic incentive to keep their industry relevant and keep the bail system in place,” Pitcher said.
The bail industry cites a landmark study by two professors with the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, Paul G. Cassell & Richard Fowles, which was released in February. It was an analysis of an Illinois study conducted following bail reform efforts in a number of counties throughout the state.
Contrary to the study’s claims that crimes committed by pretrial releases did not increase, the underlying data revealed that Chicago’s bail reform measures resulted in an increase in the release of defendants charged with violent crimes, followed by a corresponding increase in crime. But researchers also said more analysis would be needed.
However, one of the professors involved in the study, Professor Paul C. Cassell, reached out after the bill came to his attention and wrote in a letter that he supported the bill, saying it avoids many of the issues that other states have been confronted with following bail reform efforts, “and should give Utah’s judges more options to address public safety issues associated with releasing defendants accused of crimes,” he wrote in the letter released to St. George News.
The bill asks the right questions about pretrial release, Cassell wrote. Previously, Utah law focused some pretrial release decisions on a defendant’s ability to post money bail, but “the more salient question,” he wrote in the letter, is whether “releasing a defendant will jeopardize public safety or fail to assure the defendant’s appearance at trial.”
The bill was first introduced on Feb. 26 and now goes to Gov. Gary Hebert for signature.
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