SALT LAKE CITY — Many nonviolent pretrial suspects in Utah who are at low risk of fleeing prosecution will no longer sit in jail just because they cannot afford bail.
Utah’s existing pretrial system relies on a bail schedule that gives judges few options. Consequently, nonviolent defendants who can afford bail are able to go free pending trial while the rest stay behind bars.
That system is “rigged against women of color and the poor,” Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, said during Senate floor debate Wednesday on House Bill 206.
The Senate voted 25-1 to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Gary Herbert, capping a years-long effort led by the Utah Judicial Council to rework how the state manages pretrial suspects.
The bill gives judges the ability to consider a suspect’s circumstances before deciding between detention and release. Bail still can be used, but HB 205 says a judge is able to use “the least restrictive, reasonably available” requirements to get the defendant to appear in court while protecting the public, victims and witnesses.
“We should be making our decisions based on the risk of the individual and not their ability to pay,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-Salt Lake City. “Again, this bill does not release dangerous or violent (suspects) or those who are likely to flee.”
The bail bond industry lobbied hard against the bill. The American Bail Coalition issued a statement recently saying the Utah bill would cause public safety dangers like those stemming from bail reform laws in New York and Illinois.
But the sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said Utah’s bill is not like the others. He said it does not change the capabilities of judges to impose bail. It instead allows judges to make release decisions that the current system prohibits.
He said judges instead will be able to order drug tests, check-ins and ankle monitors, for instance, while defendants are free pending trial.
More than half of Utah’s jail inmates are pretrial suspects, Weiler said. It costs $80 to $110 per day to hold someone in jail, he added.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, gave an example of how the current system works against nonviolent, first-time offenders with limited income.
Someone arrested on a Friday night on suspicion of a second-degree felony often would be held on $50,000 bond, which requires $5,000 cash bail for release.
“Most people don’t have $5,000 in cash ... It has no relevance whatsoever to that particular person,” Hillyard said. “He or she could be someone picked up for the first time, has a family, has a job, and we can protect them from suicide or some other problem” by allowing pretrial release right away.
Under HB 206, a jail deputy could contact an on-call judge to discuss the particulars. The judge now would be able to impose or deny bail or release the suspect without bail.
As it stands under the current law, though, Hillyard said, “You might spend a week in jail by the time they get everything resolved, or three weeks, four weeks ... at that point they’ve lost their job, lost their family and they may even end up not guilty.”
Supporters said the bill is backed by numerous entities in the criminal justice system, including associations of prosecutors, defense attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs, the Utah State Bar, Utah Association of Counties, the Libertas Institute and the American Civil Liberties Association.