SALT LAKE CITY — Representatives from Utah's court system are working to answer questions and ease concerns after planned changes to pretrial release assessments sparked opposition among lawmakers and bail bond companies.
Third District Judge Todd Shaughnessy said Thursday the screening protocol that the courts are looking to adopt is a "critically needed" tool that his colleagues on the bench have been clamoring for years.
In light of criticism that put the program on hold, Shaughnessy, representing the Administrative Office of the Courts, told the Legislature's Judicial Rules Review Committee he wants to dispel rumors about its possible impact.
"There is a perception that having the PSA available to judges will allow dangerous people to walk the streets, that it will burden law enforcement with rearresting defendants who shouldn't have been released and that it will result in higher rates of failing to appear in court," Shaughnessy said. "The empirical validated research shows exactly the opposite."
Shaughnessy also explained that "the use of the PSA is not going to change the way in which the bail industry operates, period," and emphasized that the assessment does not remove a judge's discretion to deviate from any release recommendation.
As the court system had prepared to adopt the pretrial risk assessment, which had been scheduled to roll out next week, protests were raised claiming more criminal defendants would end up released into the community, endangering the public.
Amid the fallout, adoption of the assessment has been put on hold. A new start date for the program has not been set.
Addressing Shaughnessy during the meeting, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said that more time and a judicial process are needed to answer outstanding questions about the assessment's impact, explaining that he and others are "trying to play catch up" on the issue.
"I really think we would all benefit from having a legislative process that stares at this and gets to the good information and really answers those questions up front and gets to the kinds of things you're telling us in this meeting," Hughes said.
Shaughnessy told Hughes that the need for a pretrial release assessment has been under consideration since 2014, including by committees involving legislators, law enforcement and representatives from the bail bond industry. Those committee members had been expected to inform and seek input from the groups they represented as options for assessment programs were whittled down to two: the assessment the court now looks to adopt and the one already in place in Salt Lake County, he said.
Shaughnessy serves as trial judge in Salt Lake County, where a risk assessment is in place. But he also spent three years assigned to a courtroom in Summit County, where no such tool is available, he explained.
Each day judges across the state must weigh — sometimes hundreds of times — whether to hold someone in jail even though they have not yet been convicted of a crime, Shaughnessy said.
Among their considerations are the rights of the accused individual, possible dangers to the public and a growing body of research that shows that incarcerating low- and moderate-risk offenders often exacerbates problems in the lives of those accused of crimes, making them more likely to reoffend, Shaughnessy said.
"Judges have to make all of these decisions in a matter of minutes, if not seconds," Shaughnessy said. "We have to make these decisions, frankly, with very little meaningful information, particularly at the outset of the case."
The proposed evaluation fills "a gap in the data" for judges assessing risks early in a case, Shaughnessy said, allowing them to make more informed decisions that are better for the public as well as for defendants in the state's justice system. And because the assessment is standardized and can be automated, rather than an interview, it is more efficient and removes risk of bias.
"Frankly, it is the best option, hands down, that is available," Shaughnessy said.
Representatives from bail bond companies present at the meeting were not invited to make public comment. Members of the industry have claimed that their businesses would be impacted if the courts adopted the assessment.