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Politics & Government

Utah Passed A Bail Reform Bill Last Year. Now, Powerful Lawmakers Want to Repeal It.

Photo of a building with the 'Bail Bonds' painted on the windows
KUER File Photo
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Several law enforcement groups were in favor of a bail reform law that passed last year. Now, they want to repeal it, along with several prominent Republican lawmakers.

Utah lawmakers voted last year to move the state away from its reliance on cash bail.

That law went into effect in October, and now lawmakers want to repeal almost all of it. Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is sponsoring a bill to do just that.

The original law requires judges to release people accused of low-level crimes using the least restrictive condition appropriate to their case. Those conditions could be things like weekly check-ins, drug tests and ankle monitors. They could also include cash bail.

Judges have to consider public safety and the defendant’s likelihood to appear in court when assigning a condition for pretrial release.

The idea was to minimize the inequities between people who could afford to pay bail and those who couldn’t, while still looking out for public safety.

The problem, Schultz said, is not the goal of the law. It’s the implementation.

“We have example after example of some of the worst offenders being released within hours, many of whom committed crimes against others, putting victims of their crimes in danger,” Schultz said. “We also have many examples of very low offenders, many of whom would have been immediately released upon booking being held for longer periods of time.”

Schultz is a member of the House leadership team. The bill’s floor sponsor, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, is a member of the Senate leadership team. That’s an indication that the bill will have wide-reaching support in the Legislature as a whole. It passed a House committee 7-4 Wednesday. It still needs the approval of the full House and the Senate.

Schultz promised to bring law enforcement and civil liberties groups together — along with the original sponsor of the bail reform law — to come up with a comprehensive substitute. He said the goal is to fix the original problem of inequity that bail creates, but fix some of the problems he’s heard about.

Data Problems

Representatives from the Utah Sheriffs’ Association and defense attorneys, who supported the original bill, told stories about low-level offenders being stuck in jail and about high-level offenders being released quickly.

However, the association’s President Chad Jensen said they didn’t have data comparing the number of situations like that from before and after the bail reform law went into place.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office said the number of people charged with first degree felonies who were released within seven days was almost cut in half after the law went into effect — a sign that dangerous criminals are being kept off the streets. The DA’s office wants to keep the original law in place.

The office also found that the number of people who were released from jail on bond after being charged with domestic violence cases dropped 38%. They compared the four months before the law took effect and the four months after. However, because of pandemic efforts to relieve overcrowding in jails, the office couldn’t get accurate data about those trends for lower-level offenses.

Critics of the repeal, like Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said the Legislature should instead work on tweaking the bail reform law instead.

“The prior system doesn't work. It benefits people who have wealth and people who have privilege,” he said. “I would much rather see people get together and work on something while keeping what we have in place that is working better, as opposed to going back to what we know doesn't work.”

Schultz agreed there’s insufficient data on the issue, but argued that meant they should proceed with rolling back the law.

“I think that there's not data on either side at this point,” Schultz said. “If we wait for data, we do so at what cost? … Let's work on getting the data as we work on getting this fixed as well.”

Other Solutions

There are three bills that attempt to address issues with the law — the strategy that Stoddard suggested lawmakers take. One, sponsored by two Republicans, would keep people in jail if they have been charged with driving under the influence and killed or seriously injured someone while doing. A judge must also determine that the person poses a “substantial danger to the community if released on bail.”

Another, also sponsored by a Republican, would keep people in jail if they’ve been charged with a Class A misdemeanor and pose a threat to public safety or would likely flee if they were released.

Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored the original bail reform bill, is also sponsoring legislation that would keep higher level offenders in jail.

It would apply to situations where there is probable cause to believe that they committed a first degree felony or a domestic violence crime that would make them a danger to the alleged victim, along with several other types of crime.

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