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Politics & Government
Representatives from Utah’s criminal justice system are back at the table to try to find bail reform policy they can all get on board with. The state Legislature largely rolled back a law earlier this year aimed at moving Utah away from its reliance on cash bail. It required judges to release people from jail before their trial using the least restrictive means, like ankle monitors, rehab or regular check-ins. This series looks at how cash bail used to work, how cost can be a barrier to refom, the role of monetary bail and separation of power between the Legislature and the judiciary.

Utah Legislature passes bail reform compromise bill

Photo of empty Utah Senate Chamber.
Austen Diamond
/
KUER
The Utah Legislature passed a bail reform bill on Wednesday. “It promotes a process that focuses on the equal protection and due process rights of individuals who are presumed innocent at the pretrial stage,” said bill sponsor Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City.

The Utah Legislature almost unanimously passed a bill Wednesday aimed at easing the state’s reliance on cash bail after very little debate. Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, was the sole no vote.

It instructs judges to consider a person's risk level, as well as their likelihood to appear in court, when setting their conditions of release from jail before their trial. Those can include things like ankle monitors, drug testing, or promising to appear in court.

Judges can still impose monetary bail, but it must be based on a person's ability to pay.

“At its core, this bill moves us away from wealth-based pretrial detention towards a pretrial process that focuses on risk,” said bill sponsor Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City. “It promotes a process that focuses on the equal protection and due process rights of individuals who are presumed innocent at the pretrial stage.”

The Legislature passed a massive overhaul of the bail system in 2020 and then largely repealed it in early 2021. This compromise legislation is the result of months of negotiations between lawmakers, law enforcement, the courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Read KUER’s series on Utah Bail Reform 

It removed controversial language that required judges to release people using the “least restrictive means” necessary to ensure public safety. Critics of that original law said that language was encouraging judges to release dangerous people. However, data from Salt Lake County showed that during the four months the law was in effect, a higher percentage of people accused of major crimes were staying in jail without bail.

“This has been a good process,” said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who was involved in the negotiations. “Utah is leading the way at trying to mitigate the extremes that we see constantly in the pendulum swing in the criminal justice space.”

Some county attorneys have been concerned about the cost of starting pretrial release programs, which handle the conditions of release like ankle monitors and drug tests. The legislation prevents judges from ordering conditions of release that would require a county to provide a service it doesn’t already offer.

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