Prosecutors defend Utah bail reform as lawmakers change their minds

SALT LAKE CITY – Salt Lake County’s chief prosecutor says Utah’s 2020 bail reform has changed things for the better in the state’s most populous county.

The changes are helping District Attorney Sim Gill’s office ensure that suspects who pose a risk to the public remain in jail, he said, while those who cannot return home and keep their jobs while they wait for the judgment.

“At least in Salt Lake County, it’s working the way it was designed,” Gill said.

Gill, a Democrat, is one of three county attorneys along the Wasatch Front who are perhaps the most staunch defenders of the 2020 law, as the competing proposals seek to modify or repeal last year’s reform. All three, who say they handle most of the state’s criminal cases together, agree that the law is not perfect, but they don’t want it to go away.

The reform has moved Utah away from a rigid cash bail system toward an approach that keeps suspects in jail based on the risk they pose, rather than their ability to pay. It orders judges to release people charged with misdemeanors using the least restrictive conditions necessary, such as ankle monitors or bail in some cases.

House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, Hooper’s Republican state legislator who sponsors the repeal measure, HB220, is among critics who say some dangerous defendants are being released under the reform law. But Representative Stephanie Pitcher, the state legislator who introduced the 2020 measure, has said that is not the case.

Pitcher, a Salt Lake City prosecutor and Democrat, contends that it actually gives law enforcement officers more tools to ensure a person is in custody because it creates a presumption of pretrial detention for those facing first-degree felony charges.

Since the changes went into effect Oct. 1, Gill’s office has been overwhelmingly successful in securing pretrial detention for those it considers a risk, according to data provided by his office.

His lawyers have tried to jail some 500 defendants before trial, about 12% of the total number of people charged. The judges agreed in all but 17. There has also been a significant drop in the number of defendants who posted bail within a week after their arrest in domestic violence cases, by an average of about 38 %, Gill said.

Before the changes, his office filed domestic violence charges against a man with five similar convictions, but the defendant posted the $ 100,000 bond in three days, Gill said. Now, Gill’s prosecutors are succeeding in arguing that such defendants should be held without bail.

Still, you have some concerns. Before making a decision, some judges look to victims and others to testify. Gill says she is concerned that this will further traumatize victims unnecessarily, when judges can simply make a decision based on testimony from a police officer.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is working on a proposal that he says would address certain concerns, but is not a total reversal.

“Implementation of the current law has been problematic,” Weiler said, although that is partly due to the pandemic, which has prompted increased releases from prisons for fear of spreading the coronavirus.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings also acknowledges that problems have arisen.

A prosecutor in his office, for example, noted that some judges agreed to release those still on probation or parole for prior felony convictions, in apparent conflict with the Utah Constitution.

Still, Rawlings said, the law has helped his office ensure the most serious offenders are apprehended. While his office does not have the resources to track the data, he said, he is seeing a trend similar to Salt Lake County.

“I’m not a fan of burning the whole house down and trying to get everyone to put Humpty Dumpty back together,” Rawlings said. He noted that a wave of court decisions across the country have found the use of cash bail unconstitutional in recent years.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt agreed. He said that before the reforms, the majority of those in county jails were awaiting trial and 90% were non-violent.

“Something as monumental as bail reform is not going to be perfect on its first take,” he said.

Ben Aldana, a Utah County public defender, said he is frustrated by the way certain judges interpret the law. Some of his clients are being held without the possibility of bail, but do not have the opportunity to present their case for release at the hearings. One of those clients chose to accept a plea deal largely to get out of jail.

“If it’s a question between leaving things the way they are now and repealing the bill, I am quick to repeal the bill,” Aldana said.

Leavitt agreed that it is a problem, but believes that educating the judges and changing the law are the best options.

For some, the reform did not go far enough. Josh Kivlovitz of the Salt Lake Community Bail Fund said the organization wants cash bail to be banned entirely.

“The only thing that bail does is create barriers for people without financial resources,” Kivlovitz said.

Before the law was passed, the fund could not consider its first requests for assistance because the dollar amounts were too high, Kivlovitz said. Since October, he has been able to help multiple defendants, paying the cost of their release in full, usually no more than $ 5,000 for each count.

Correction: An earlier version said the judges disagreed with Salt Lake County prosecutors on pretrial detention in all but 17. In fact, the judges agreed with prosecutors in all but 17.

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