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Politics & Government

Utah Senate Committee Passes Watered Down Bill To Repeal Bail Reform, Senate Approves Task Force

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Lawmakers passed a bill law year that requires judges to release people accused of low-level crimes using the least restrictive condition. Judges have to consider public safety and the defendant’s likelihood to appear in court when assigning a condition for pretrial release.

Updated 3/2/21:

The bill to repeal Utah’s bail reform law was changed slightly Tuesday, but it still removes the heart of the law: that judges must release people accused of low-level crimes using the least restrictive condition. It passed a Senate committee 4-3 Tuesday night. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, promised to convene a working group but did not put that promise into the text of his bill.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, removed portions of the fix-it bill that made actual changes to the law. Instead, it now only creates a task force to study the issue. It passed the Senate almost unanimously and moved on to the House.

Weiler said regardless of whether the repeal bill passes, the task force will be critical to addressing bail reform in the state.

Original:

There are two competing proposals in the Utah Legislature to change a bail reform law that took effect last October.

The law requires judges to release people accused of low-level crimes using the least restrictive condition. That can include things like drug tests, weekly check-ins and ankle monitors. It can 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 goal was to minimize the inequities between people who could afford to pay bail and those who couldn’t.

Now, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is sponsoring a bill to repeal the law. The problem, he said during a committee hearing earlier this session, is the law’s implementation.

“We have example after example of some of the worst offenders being released within hours,” Schultz said. “We also have many examples of very low offenders being held for longer periods of time.”

He said the repeal would essentially put a pause on the law. He is promising to convene stakeholders after the legislative session, which ends Friday, to work up a new bail reform bill.

Supporters of the repeal have not released statewide data on the issue. Critics of Schultz’s bill point to statistics from Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties that show a higher percentage of people accused of major crimes are staying in jail now.

District attorneys from those counties, along with public defenders and a victims advocate, held a press conference Monday to speak against the proposed repeal. They said it would be dangerous to repeal the law.

“The bail system wasn't serving our purposes of protecting victims and protecting the larger society,” Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said. “What it did was ensure that the wealthy, who could also be dangerous, have the capacity to bail out and continue to perpetrate their crimes.”

Leavitt and two other district attorneys said there are some issues with the law, but they’re addressed by a bill in the Senate. That legislation would create a task force to study the issue. It would also allow defendants to appeal a judge’s ruling and require judges to only order pretrial release conditions that the county currently offers, among other things.

“If we can fix two thirds of the problem now, and come back in a special session or next year and address the rest of them, that’s real progress,” said bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

The repeal bill has passed the House but has not yet been granted a public hearing in the Senate. Weiler’s legislation modifying the law has passed an initial vote on the Senate floor, but he’s put a pause on the final vote needed to send it over to the House.

The clock is ticking on negotiations. Lawmakers have until midnight on Friday to decide what to do with these bills.

Updated: March 2, 2021 at 9:46 PM MST
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