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A look into the last-ditch — and misleading — campaign by Utah’s sheriffs to get bail reform repealed

Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bail reform repeal Wednesday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, speaks out against the so-called bad faith repeal of bail reform, along with other top prosecutors and public defenders, during a news conference at Salt Lake County District Attorney's building on Monday, March 1, 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill into law Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Utah’s sheriffs launched an aggressive last-ditch campaign, publicizing dangerous people they say were let loose because of a flawed bail reform law.

Their goal was to persuade Gov. Spencer Cox, but the blitz might not have been necessary. The governor signed the controversial repeal bill Wednesday, though with a note promising that this debate will return and soon.

The Utah Sheriffs’ Association sent a news release minutes before Cox announced he’d sign the bill, highlighting two cases out of “dozens of egregious examples” they said proved the 2020 bail reform had made communities unsafe.

In one example, a man arrested after a violent standoff in Pleasant Grove was let out of jail because prosecutors hadn’t filed charges yet. And in the other, a murder case out of Duschesne County, the sheriffs’ association argued the suspect was almost released with just an ankle monitor, but court records show a judge had the option to keep the suspect in jail — which happened the next day.

Neither appear to have been impacted by bail reform.

This hotly contested bill has sparked a bitter fight between law enforcement on one side and prosecutors and defense attorneys on the other. And it is all over a reform law that only went into effect in October.

That original bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, intended to keep relatively low-risk defendants from sitting behind bars for weeks or months awaiting trial because they’re poor, while people with more resources could post bail and walk free. The overhaul package did that by replacing the normal cash bail-centric model with one that relies on risk factors when deciding whether to detain or release a person.

State legislators this year wrestled over whether to repeal or modify the 2020 law. They opted for a hybrid approach.

The 2021 bill deleted the part of the law that introduced the risk assessment and advised judges to impose the least restrictive conditions of release available. It also creates a new fund for pretrial release programs in local jurisdictions.

Pitcher, a Salt Lake City Democrat who works as a prosecutor, said the misleading anecdotes released Wednesday are just part of a larger “misinformation campaign that fueled the repeal efforts.”

Earlier, proponents brought up a July 2020 DUI crash in Cache County that left four teenagers critically injured. The man charged in that crime was released from jail almost immediately.

Salt Lake City police announced a federal task force in January, in part, to deal with what they said were repercussions of Pitcher’s bill. They cited a man — a so-called revolving door case — who was arrested nine times between April and November.

But, like many of the anecdotes offered by Utah sheriffs, these happened before Pitcher’s bill went into effect in October. The men were released under the provisions of the old law, not the new one.

At one point during this general session, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz called the confusion a “s--- show,” and said the chaos had set off a metaphorical “nuclear bomb” within the Legislature.

On Wednesday, Pitcher said she was “disappointed” Cox decided to sign the bill but was hopeful that ongoing conversations will be “productive.”

“I’m worried, though, that the message is that despite what the data shows, certain groups can achieve certain policy outcomes,” she said.

In a news release, Cox made clear the repeal bill he signed Wednesday was flawed and said he planned to call a special session to pass a better law that “appropriately balances public safety and the rights of defendants who are presumed innocent.”

It’s unclear whether Cox’s decision was influenced by the sheriff’s association’s campaign.

A governor’s office spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment.

Among the lobbyists working on the repeal for the sheriffs was former House Speaker Greg Hughes, a recent candidate for governor and a close political ally of Schultz, the repeal bill sponsor.

On Wednesday, the association highlighted the Pleasant Grove case of Robert Clark, who was released from jail after seven days. The details of this case inflamed tensions between Utah County Attorney David Leavitt and Sheriff Mike Smith, who Leavitt said lied in a Wednesday news release.

Smith argues that Clark was released because of the 2020 bail reform.

The county attorney says that is “100%, completely bogus.”

“Under the old system, had bail reform never passed in Utah and everything else was the same, this guy would still be released from jail,” Leavitt said. “At best what the sheriff is doing is utilizing a mistake on the part of the court to capitalize on his political belief on what bail reform ought to look like.”

Sgt. Spencer Cannon, a spokesperson for the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, denied Smith was lying, adding,”there is obviously a disagreement” between the county’s sheriff and top prosecutor about the impacts of bail reform.

Leavitt said it was a judge not signing a motion that resulted in Clark being released — not bail reform.

“The bottom line is this guy got out of jail because charges weren’t filed,” the county attorney said. “And charges weren’t filed because we don’t file cases without evidence.”

Leavitt said his office hadn’t filed charges because the police agencies involved in the standoff didn’t give prosecutors their reports until late Friday afternoon.

“The arresting agency has not been able to submit the official report and evidence in time for a formal screening review and therefore charges have not yet been filed,” a prosecutor wrote in the motion asking for Clark to be held in jail.

That judge, Leavitt said, never considered the motion. And Clark walked free. A warrant was issued for Clark’s arrest Wednesday evening, after prosecutors filed assault and firearm charges against him.

Court officials said they didn’t have an answer to why the judge didn’t take action on the prosecutors’ previous motion for an extension.

“As customary, the court is looking into the specific details and timelines of relevant events in this case,” said District Court Administrator Shane Bahr.

Leavitt and other prosecutors in Utah’s largest counties had asked lawmakers not to repeal the bail reform package. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Wednesday he’s heartened that the governor plans to call a special session.

“It demonstrates the urgency — and the inequity that the old system created,” he said. “The governor recognizes that allowing that inequity and that disparity to go on for another year would be a manifest injustice.”

But Gill added that he felt it was an abuse of the privilege afforded to elected officials for sheriffs like Smith to put out wrong information about cases.

“It is absolutely disappointing,” he said, “for an elected official to so patently mislead his community on a premise that has nothing to do with reality.”

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