Utah’s Bail Reform: How The Cost Is Pushing Rural Counties Away From The Benefits
After the state Legislature largely rolled back a law aimed at moving Utah away from cash bail reform, Representatives from Utah’s criminal justice system are back at the table to try to find a police they can all agree with.
The debate has prosecutors divided, especially when it comes to how to pay for the programs that make those pretrial release conditions, like ankle monitors, possible.
Prosecutors in more urban counties, like Salt Lake and Davis, already had programs set up when the law went into effect.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office released data showing the law worked as intended in the county before it was rolled back. A higher percentage of people accused of major crimes were staying in jail without bail after it went into effect.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said his team saw similar results, but their computer system did not have the ability to compile the data in the way that Salt Lake County could.
“It was getting the people out of jail who should be out of jail without having to post bail,” Rawlings said, “and keeping those people in jail who should be kept in jail, who otherwise could have been released under the old system just simply because they could post bail.”
But it comes with a cost. Davis County budgets more than $500,000 per year for its pretrial release service. Rawlings said it’s been a worthwhile investment.
Rural counties, however, often say they don’t have that kind of money.
The original bail reform law set up a grant program that counties could apply to to start pretrial release programs. It’s funded by bail money that people forfeit when they don’t show up for court.
State money isn’t always appealing to local officials, though, like Cache County Attorney James Swink.
“You want local control and sometimes that's what you lose with grants, right?” Swink said. “You're having some bureaucrat in another location decide what your program will look like when in reality, local government always works best and understands the dynamic of your community.”
There's not enough money in that fund yet to start the program, even for counties that would want that financial support, according to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which oversees the fund.
So far it has about $175,000 but needs about $500,000 to get off the ground.
Bail Reform Without Pretrial Services
Without the money to fund a robust pretrial services program, Swink said the bail reform law put judges in a tough spot.
“It says this court granting pretrial release shall impose the least restrictive, reasonable, available conditions of release on the individual,” he said. “That was being interpreted around the state and in all sorts of different ways. Some judges believe they had to release people given that language.”
He added that it isn’t good for public safety. As stakeholders continue trying to find a compromise piece of bail reform legislation, they’re considering whether “least restrictive” or another term is best to use.
Rawlings argued although pretrial services programs are helpful, there are conditions that judges can impose that don’t require those programs to be in place.
“You can do things with those lower level, less risk offenders where you don't need a formal pretrial program, such as don't have contact with the victim, don't have contact with the witnesses,” he said. “You'll give them their definitive court times when they need to show up and be there. If they need to find a job, do a job search and come back to the judge and show the judge [they]'ve been looking for a job.”