Utah lawmakers OK bill to reform bail system

(Kathy Willens | AP file photo) This July 7, 2015, file photo, shows a sign advertising a bail bonds business in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Utah lawmakers are exploring a new system for pretrial release that wouldn't rely so heavily on a defendant's ability to pay.

Utah lawmakers are challenging the system that allows the wealthy to go free while poor Utahns who cannot afford bail remain in jail. HB206 won final legislative passage Wednesday with a 25-1 Senate vote.

Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, told members of the Senate Business and Labor Committee that currently monetary bail is the most widely used pretrial release tool. Judges set an amount based on a bail schedule — a chart that assigns a dollar value to the level of offense charged.

If an individual can pay the full amount to the court or 10% to a bail bondsman, they are free to go before their case is resolved. “If they cannot, they remain in custody for weeks, months, or even longer until their case finally resolves," said Pitcher, who is a prosecutor in the Davis County attorney’s office.

The system, she said, is flawed. “The problem with this system is that it does nothing to account for the public safety concerns an individual defendant may pose. Instead it creates a two-tier wealth-based system where those who have money are out and those who do not stay in."

HB206 would do three main things. First, the bill would require judges to set the least restrictive conditions to make sure the defendant comes to court; the public, witnesses and victims are safe; and the court process is effective. This means that if monetary bail is imposed, the judge would consider the person’s ability to pay.

Second, the bill creates a funding mechanism that would be used to create a pretrial release program in each county. It proposes a new method of distributing forfeited bonds where 15% would go to the prosecuting agency, 60% to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and 25% to the state General Fund — rather than sending all forfeited bonds to the General Fund. Lastly, the bill would streamline rules related to forfeiting bonds.

Pitcher said the legislation is a response to several legal challenges across the country that have raised concerns about the constitutionality of the monetary bail system on the grounds of equal protection and due process.

Ben Aldana, a public defender in Utah County, said it’s his job to defend people who have no money and he has seen firsthand why a change is needed.

“This bill is important because I have a lot of people who end up pleading guilty to a criminal offense because that’s part of the plea bargain. ‘If you plead guilty to this we’ll let you out of jail.’ That happens all the time," said Aldana.

He said this system is morally wrong and HB206 would help fix it.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill also spoke in favor of the bill, saying it is supported by a wide range of legal experts, from the Statewide Association of Prosecutors to the Utah State Bar.

“This is a great bill that allows for a balanced approach without compromising public safety.”

Pitcher said the only opposition to the bill, now headed to Gov. Gary Herbert for final action, has been from the bail bond industry.