Lawmakers OK bill to correct oversight that kept some low-risk suspects in jail

The Utah County Jail is pictured

(KSL, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers didn't revisit their contentious repeal of bail reform during a special session Wednesday, but they did take a small step allowing more Utahns to be released from jail ahead of trial.

The Legislature passed a measure that allows sheriffs to once again release certain suspects on a promise to appear, so long as they don't pose a risk to public safety. The bill also requires the law enforcers to draft policies with criteria for who qualifies.

Lawmakers inadvertently prevented the releases in their 2020 reform law and subsequent repeal, said Sen. Todd Weiler, the bill's Senate sponsor. The Woods Cross Republican told colleagues Wednesday the new proposal is a "no-brainer" that will help address just 2% of the problem.

The House and Senate voted unanimously in favor of the bill, the first born out of a working group on bail in the Beehive State. It now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox for approval.

The oversight mainly affected smaller counties where sheriffs, rather than pretrial agencies, have long identified those eligible for release.

"I wouldn't say that it's a large population that was falling into this category," said Tom Ross, executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, "but there was no doubt that they used to release people that they no longer could."

Not everyone is eligible. Those arrested for any felony — plus misdemeanors based on domestic violence, sexual battery, and crimes against children — don't qualify. Under the new bill, neither do those accused of certain DUI's or rioting that causes serious injury, involves arson or is carried out with a weapon.

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 a meeting of the Legislature's Interim Judiciary Committee 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.

Correction: An earlier version said sheriffs couldn't sign off on the releases in the past. In reality, they had been able to do so before last year.

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