Multiple county attorneys and public defenders, including Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, are speaking out against a bill being considered by the Utah State Legislature that would repeal bail reform that lawmakers passed last year.
House Bill 220, sponsored by House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, would remove “the substantive changes to the bail system” that were made by H.B. 206, which amended Utah’s pretrial system to allow for the release of pretrial suspects who are at low risk of fleeing prosecution and are only sitting in jail because they cannot afford bail.
The reform effort was heavily lobbied against at the time by the bail bond industry, and the Utah Sheriffs’ Association currently supports its repeal.
On Feb. 5, Schultz told the House, which approved the bill on a 51-21 vote, that the reform has “not delivered as it was intended to” since it was implemented in October 2020 and called the new bail system “broken on all sides.”
Schultz talked about an individual who was arrested in Cache County for 10 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and “was released within hours with no bounty.”
“Does this sound like a more thoughtful, individualized approach? Does it sound like it provided more tools for the judge, and has it addressed to a greater extent the public safety risk? It doesn’t sound like it to me,” the lawmaker said.
But Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill called the idea that bail reform decreases public safety a “false argument” and called the repeal effort “alarmist and knee-jerk without any factual basis whatsoever.”
“If bail reform gets repealed, our community … will be less just,” Gill said on Monday during a press conference in Salt Lake City. “Monetary bail is not a measure of risk and it does not protect public safety. It is simply a measurement of wealth and connections.”
At the press conference, Leavitt said stakeholders pushed for reform last year because they understood that Utah’s bail system “wasn’t serving our purposes of protecting victims and protecting the larger society.”
“What it did was ensure that the wealthy, who could also be dangerous, had the capacity to bail out and continue to perpetrate their crimes,” Utah County’s top prosecutor said. “What we need is the ability to hold wealthy people who are dangerous without bail. And that’s what this bail reform bill that passed last year does.”
In response to anecdotal “assertions that dangerous people are getting out,” Leavitt said that “whenever you change from one system to another, there’s certainly going to be a learning curve.”
“And we had a learning curve,” he said. “But 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.”
Ben Aldana, an attorney with Utah County Public Defender Association, said he wanted to speak against the repeal effort “because my clients don’t have expensive lobbyists up on the Hill like the bail industry does and like the Sheriffs’ Association does to go and push their agenda, whatever that may be.”
Only 12% of more than 4,000 individuals that have been arrested since October were found to have posed a risk to the community, according to Gill, who said “the other side will not bring any data forward.”
“So, bail reform is working in Salt Lake County. And it is working in Utah. And it is creating a fair and just system that is constitutionally sound and equitable without compromising on public safety, without passing that cost onto the taxpayers and without upholding a system that is exploitative of the poor, oppressive to our communities of color and unjust to our ideals of justice, fairness, equality and truth,” Gill said.
The attorneys agreed that the reformed bail system is “not perfect” and said they supported Senate Bill 171, which would create a task force to “identify barriers to effective implementation of pretrial services and develop protocols and procedures to overcome those barriers” and “make legislative recommendations regarding best practices related to pretrial services.”
S.B. 171, which is sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, passed its second reading in the Senate on Thursday with a 16-11 vote.
The repeal bill, meanwhile, received a favorable recommendation on Tuesday from the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee with a 4-3 vote.