The Utah State Legislature passed a bill this week that will repeal most of a recently implemented bail reform law that allows judges to release pretrial suspects who are at low risk of fleeing prosecution and are only sitting in jail because they cannot afford bail.
Lawmakers passed the repeal bill, House Bill 220, despite vocal opposition from public defenders and the top prosecutors of Utah’s three most populous counties, who called the repeal a “bad faith” effort that would negatively and disproportionately impact Utahns who cannot afford bail.
“If bail reform gets repealed, our community … will be less just,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said on Monday during a press conference. “Monetary bail is not a measure of risk and it does not protect public safety. It is simply a measurement of wealth and connections.”
“We are five months into substantive reform, and, as the Utah County Attorney, I would plead with our Utah Legislature to let bail reform continue,” added Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.
But supporters of the repeal effort, including the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, argue that the reform has “not delivered as it was intended to” and has resulted in dangerous individuals being released from custody without bail.
“There are two things, at least, that there is consensus on in this issue,” Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, the bill’s co-sponsor, said on Wednesday. “One is that the implementation of House Bill 206 that deals with bail bond reform last year has not been successful. And the other consensus is that there needs to be some fixes and some reform on this.”
The sponsors tweaked the bill on Tuesday to incorporate “compromises from the various working groups that have been going on this session,” according to Cullimore, an attorney, who noted that the amended bill “repeals a lot of the contentious stuff.”
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who is sponsoring a bill that would create a task force to study pretrial services, said the amended repeal bill contained “internal consistencies” and “creates a tremendous amount of confusion.”
“So it’s now a repeal bill that doesn’t repeal, it’s a fix-it bill that doesn’t fix,” Weiler told the Senate on Wednesday. “It creates more confusion than it resolves.”
Weiler pointed out that the bill is opposed by victim advocacy groups, including the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Rape Recovery Center, as well as “county attorneys from the three largest counties who prosecute 80% of the criminal cases in this state.”
“The private defense attorneys appear to like it, but the public defenders across the state are uniformly against (H.B.) 220,” said Weiler, who is an attorney.
Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, voiced concern with repealing bail reform and returning to a system that “was problematic” and “disproportionately affected” people who “didn’t have the means.”
“It really is not my interest to preserve a portion of our industry, bail bond industry, for sake of their profits, when there is a fundamental right to have fairness in front of the law,” the Lehi senator said. “And, to me, whether or not we hold someone should be based upon their threat level, not upon their ability to pay.”
But Anderegg, who ultimately voted to approve the bill, agreed that the new system needs to be revised, noting that implementation of the reform in rural counties has been “much more problematic” than implementation in Utah, Salt Lake and Davis counties.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, spoke against the bill and said those who argue that bail reform has negatively impacted public safety lack data to back up their claims.
“The data on your desks shows that this is working,” Thatcher told his colleagues. “We have the data. It’s not anecdotes, it’s not stories, it’s not binders full of unrelated cases. The data is on your desks. It’s working. The most dangerous people are being held without bail, which would be removed under this bill.”
The amended version of H.B. 220 passed through the Senate with a 20-8 vote. The changes to the bill were later approved on Wednesday by the House, which passed the original bill on Feb. 5.
The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Spencer Cox.
Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 801-344-2599.