Utah’s bail reform package breezes through the Legislature

The proposal would shift the state away from a wealth-based system for releasing 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, Nov. 9, 2021.

Months of intense negotiation and heated debate over Utah’s pretrial release system culminated in two breezy votes Wednesday in favor of a bill that would move the state away from a cash-bail model.

The proposal approved by the House and Senate would direct magistrates and judges to consider a person’s risk as they’re setting conditions for release from jail before trial. Those conditions could range from ankle monitoring to random drug or alcohol testing.

But each of the restrictions should be aimed at safeguarding victims, witnesses and the public; discouraging the defendant from skipping future court appearances and preventing him or her from tampering with the criminal case.

“This bill moves us away from a wealth-based pretrial detention and towards a pretrial process that is focused on a risk assessment,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, presenting the proposal to his colleagues. “It promotes a process that focuses on the equal protection and the due process rights of individuals who are presumed innocent at the pretrial stage.”

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

Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican, said the Utah Statewide Association of Prosecutors and Public Attorneys supported the bill, as did the bail bonds industry, criminal defense lawyers and sheriffs.

It’s a long-awaited reform for those who say Utah’s previous cash-bail model unfairly impacted lower-income defendants who couldn’t afford to pay their way out of jail. Critics of the system also contend it fails to keep dangerous offenders off the street, since it links a person’s freedom to his or her wealth rather than to public safety risk.

Early last month, an attorney filed a lawsuit challenging this cash bail system on behalf of three clients who were arrested on relatively minor crimes and didn’t have enough money to get out of jail.

The legislation, HB2003, would still enable the courts to set bail but requires judges to consider the defendant’s financial situation when determining the amount.

It would also call for a three-year pilot program to audit the financial information of defendants who say they can’t afford to pay for their own legal counsel and need a free, court-appointed attorney. Under the proposed program, these audits could require defendants to hand over financial documentation and other proof that they qualify for these legal services.

If the review finds the defendant does not qualify as indigent, the person would have to refund the cost of the court-appointed attorney who represented him or her, according to the bill.

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

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

The bill’s path through the Legislature was smooth, considering the challenges before this point.

Pitcher, a Salt Lake City Democrat, shepherded a first package of reforms through the Legislature in 2020. While her plan at first had broad support, the coalition around it crumbled just a few months after its passage, and state lawmakers earlier this year rolled back major pieces of the legislation.

Since then, state lawmakers, attorneys, public safety representatives and others have been meeting to find a way forward.

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