Vote to halt bail changes in Utah passes after all, but courts plan to move forward

The reform would gauge defendants on risk rather than ability to pay, and not everyone is pleased.

Rep. Paul Ray, of Clearfield, Utah, addresses a committee hearing Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers want to once again allow state executions by firing squad in order to avoid problems with lethal injection drugs. The proposal from Ray would call for a firing squad if the state cannot obtain lethal injection drugs 30 days before a scheduled execution. Ray says he thinks it's the most humane way to kill someone because an inmate dies instantly. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

After some confusion about legislative interim rules, it turns out a Utah lawmaker’s motion to encourage the courts to halt bail changes actually passed — but court officials say they’re planning to move forward with the new system anyway.

State courts are preparing to implement a new screening process for bail in November that will give judges more information about defendants in deciding if they will need to post bail — and how much — to get out of jail.

But Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, expressed concern Wednesday during a Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee hearing, saying the courts should have come to legislators first before considering such a “dramatic policy change.”

Ray asked the committee on Wednesday to “strongly recommend to the courts to hold off on any implementation” until state lawmakers can take a look at it. But the reception from fellow legislators was lukewarm. While the motion had enough support from House members, it tied among senators.

After some discussion Wednesday, lawmakers reviewed committee rules and clearly announced the motion failed. But after additional review, Ray late Wednesday said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune that the measure actually passed.

“It needed a tie in one body and a majority in the other,” he wrote.

But court officials said Thursday that their plans are unchanged, and they’ll move forward with the changes in November despite the lawmakers’ request.

“The Utah Courts has always been committed to examining pre-trial issues,” spokesman Geoff Fattah said in a statement, “and there will be future ongoing discussions after implementation involving stakeholders.”

Fattah noted that the courts have been getting mixed signals from the legislature: A January 2017 legislative audit strongly encouraged these changes, and now lawmakers are asking for the opposite. He said the tool will be studied in Davis, Beaver and Utah counties after it’s implemented to test its effectiveness.

During Wednesday’s hearing, several from the bail-bondsman industry warned lawmakers that with the new protocol, jails will become revolving doors for criminals. But those in support of bail reform countered, saying the changes will assess actual risk to the public and not just release those who can afford to pay.

Wayne Carlos, with the Utah Association of Professional Bondsmen and Agents, told the legislative committee that people should be wary of trusting those who have already violated the “public’s trust” by committing a crime. He questioned the worth of promises from such people to show up in court without the risk of forfeiting bail.

Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman spoke in favor the changes Wednesday, saying public safety should not be based solely on the whether someone has the money to get out of jail. On Thursday, Tolman said in a statement to The Tribune that the new system has overwhelming support from Utah judges — and noted the lawmakers’ efforts have no binding impact on the courts.

“The bail bondsmen may have money and political influence,” he said, “but the facts support implementing a system where individuals accused of violent crimes cannot just purchase their freedom. … I expect implementation will move forward as planned.”

The Utah Judicial Council approved the new bail process in January, with a start date of Nov. 13. According to court officials, the new program will give judges an automated report on a defendant, which will include his or her background information, failure-to-appear records and history of violent offenses. The judge can then decide a bail amount — or perhaps release a defendant without the requirement of posting bail. Previously, judges have most often relied only on probable cause statements filed by an arresting officer when making decisions on bail amounts.

Jeff Clayton, executive director for the American Bail Coalition, told legislators that the automated reports are almost always too lenient.

“The biggest problem is that it never recommends bail,” Clayton said. “It always recommends release.”

According to 2013 data gathered by Measures for Justice, 43 percent of Utah’s inmates remain in jail with pending cases. In Salt Lake County, 60 percent of inmates in December 2013 — the most recent data available — were being held pretrial.