Utah Senate passes bill to help poor who can’t afford bail

(Kathy Willens | AP file photo) A sign advertising a bail bonds business in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that aims to end what supporters say is an unfair system where the wealthy who can afford bail are released before their trials, but the poor often remain jailed.

It voted 25-1 to pass HB206, and sent it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his consideration.

Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, a prosecutor in the Davis County attorney’s office, sponsored the bill, saying the current criminal justice rules about bail and release create “a two-tier wealth-based system where those who have money are out and those who do not stay in."

If an individual can pay the full bail amount to a court or 10% to a bail bondsman, they are free to go before their case is resolved.

But Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said, “A lot of people, especially poor people, can’t post bail. So they sit in jail for longer than their sentence would have been.”

Weiler said the bill allows judges to take more into consideration besides bail schedules — including such things as past criminal record, ability to pay bail, ties to the community and potential risk they pose to themselves or others if released.

He said it would allow judges to use options such as ordering ankle bracelets to track a person’s whereabouts and allow drug testing to help ensure proper conduct.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said by the time many poor people arrange bail, “They have lost their job, lost their family — and they may end up not guilty.”

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. That means that if monetary bail is imposed, the judge would consider the person’s ability to pay.

Bail bond companies had opposed the bill, but the final version was supported by prosecutors and court officials.

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