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November 29, 2021

Lawmakers weigh bill allowing jail release of more low-risk suspects

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers aren’t planning to revisit their contentious repeal of bail reform when they convene for a special session Wednesday, but they will debate a smaller step allowing more Utahns to be released from jail ahead of trial.

At the direction of Gov. Spencer Cox, the Utah Legislature is set to consider a measure allowing county sheriffs to release certain suspects on a promise to appear if they don’t pose a risk to public safety.

The bill borne out of a working group on bail in the Beehive State has approval from the Democratic lawmaker who sponsored the 2020 reforms and the Republican legislator who led the successful effort to repeal them last year.

Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, called the measure “a fantastic first step” on Tuesday, and Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, called it “a very significant step forward.”

They were among the lawmakers on the Interim Judiciary Committee that voted unanimously Tuesday to throw their support behind the proposal sponsored by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield.

More populous counties in Utah have long released suspects on their own recognizance, but people arrested in smaller counties that lack pretrial agencies are typically held in jail. Not everyone would be eligible for release under the move. For example, those arrested for any felony — plus misdemeanors based on domestic violence, sexual battery, and crimes against children — don’t qualify.

The 2020 change to bail in Utah directed judges to order suspects held in jail mainly based on the risks that they pose, rather than a set dollar amount linked to the alleged offense. When judges opted to set cash bail, the new law required them to consider a person’s ability to pay.

The Legislature passed the measure with broad support from prosecutors and defense attorneys and over the opposition of bail bond companies.

After the changes took effect in October, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association and law enforcers in rural counties contended they allowed for some dangerous offenders to be released — a claim the law’s supporters rejected. The repeal measure walking back many of the reforms passed the Legislature in March and took effect earlier this month.

At the judiciary panel’s meeting Tuesday, representatives from the Utah Attorney General’s Office, the state courts system and the defense bar urged lawmakers against returning to a rigid system relying heavily on cash bail. They cited concerns about fairness for low-income people and judges having enough leeway to make decisions based on the specifics of a case.

Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen, who is the president of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, said he and his counterparts prefer to have a list that sets the amount of bail so that there are clear standards for who can be released and at what price — guidelines he said can help head off any allegations of discrimination.

He also implored legislators to keep in mind what he said can be hefty costs of supervising defendants who aren’t in jail.

“We do need to talk about the cost of doing pretrial services across the state,” he said.

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