Utah bail reform package passes through Legislature

The proposal would move the state away from a wealth-based system to release people from jail before trial.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lawmakers in the House chamber during a special legislative session, at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, November 9, 2021.

Months of intense negotiations and heated debate over Utah’s interim release system resulted in two quick votes on Wednesday for a bill that would move the state away from a cash bond model.

The proposal approved by the House and Senate would order magistrates and judges to consider a person’s risk as they set conditions for release from prison before trial. These conditions can range from ankle monitoring to random drug or alcohol testing.

But each of the restrictions should aim to protect victims, witnesses and the public; discourage the defendant from skipping future court appearances and prevent the defendant from tampering with the criminal case.

“This bill takes us away from a wealth-based pretrial detention and towards a risk-based pretrial process,” said Senator Todd Weiler, presenting the proposal to his colleagues. “It promotes a process focused on equal protection and due process rights for those presumed innocent at the pre-trial stage.

“This is not a bill that a group is promoting,” Representative Stephanie Pitcher, sponsor of the proposal, told the House on Wednesday. “It’s a compromise bill, and I think we’ve struck the right balance. “

Weiler, a Republican from Woods Cross, said the Utah State Attorneys Association supported the bill, as did the surety industry, criminal defense attorneys and sheriffs.

It’s a long overdue reform for those who say Utah’s previous model of cash bail had an unfair impact on low-income defendants who couldn’t afford to pay their release from jail. Critics of the system also argue that it fails to keep dangerous offenders off the streets because it ties a person’s freedom to their wealth rather than a risk to public safety.

Earlier last month, a lawyer filed a lawsuit challenging this cash bond system on behalf of three clients who were arrested for relatively minor crimes and did not have enough money to get out of jail.

The legislation, HB2003, would still allow courts to set the bond but require judges to take the financial situation of the defendant into account when determining the amount.

He would also call for a three-year pilot program to verify the financial information of defendants who say they cannot afford to pay their own lawyer and need duty counsel for free. Under the proposed program, these audits may require defendants to submit financial documents and other evidence that they are eligible for these legal services.

If the examination finds that the defendant is not considered indigent, the person will have to reimburse the costs of the duty counsel who represented him, according to the bill.

The pilot program would take place in Cache, Davis, Duchesne and San Juan counties.

The measure was passed unanimously by the House and was approved a few minutes later in the Senate, with only one person voting against.

The progress of the bill through the Legislature has gone smoothly, given the challenges prior to this point.

Pitcher, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, led a first reform package through the legislature in 2020. While her plan initially had broad support, the coalition surrounding her collapsed just months after its passage. , and state lawmakers earlier this year struck down centerpieces of the legislation.

Since then, state lawmakers, lawyers, public safety officials and others have come together to find a way forward.

Now that the legislature has approved the measure, it will go to Governor Spencer Cox for a signature.

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