Most people can’t just disappear from life for days at a time. Their employment, schooling, housing, and relationships would be put at high risk. But that’s exactly what happens when a person is arrested and their judge sets a high monetary bail amount that they simply can’t afford to pay.
It doesn’t matter that they aren’t yet convicted of a crime. Those presumed to be innocent are still held in jail until their trial, even if they’re not a flight risk or threat to the community, simply because they’re poor.
As a result, many lower-income people simply plead guilty or take a plea deal to get out or sit in jail in hopes of asserting their innocence while their life crumbles apart on the outside.
Wealthier people don’t face this problem — they can buy their pretrial freedom.
This unfair process is perpetuated by Utah’s historical reliance on the uniform bail schedule, which recommends monetary bail amounts for crimes. But an individual’s personal circumstances and financial situation are not part of the equation when setting these amounts. If a poor person and rich person are charged with the same crime for the first time, for example, they may very well have the same amount set for bail. And as a result, one will walk free and one will stay incarcerated.
As a prosecutor, Representative Stephanie Pitcher is all too familiar with this process — and she’s passionate about changing it for the better. This year, she sponsored House Bill 206 which passed through the Legislature after substantial roadblocks that we were able to help clear up.
The bill instructs courts to “impose the least restrictive reasonably available conditions of release” so long as they are reasonably assured that the individual will appear for court, and the public, witnesses, and victims are kept safe. If the court decides to impose a financial condition of release (cash bail), they must consider the individual’s ability to pay when determining the amount.
These considerations will protect lower-income Utahns from high cash bail amounts that are unreasonable for them to pay. It will also help ensure that high-risk wealthy individuals are given bail conditions that are more fitting to their situation, which could mean higher bail amounts to secure their appearance so justice can be served.
HB 206 garnered support from many government agencies and other advocacy groups including the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, Chiefs of Police, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Civil Liberties Union. In both committee hearings for this bill, the only opponents who spoke against the bill were representing the bail bond industry — who have a vested financial interest in having defendants obligated to pay large amounts of money to secure their freedom.
It’s easy to point fingers at a suspect when a crime is committed, but Utah’s Constitution guarantees the rights of the accused as an important part of the justice system. The changes of HB 206 will help establish a bail process that is more fair and equitable for everyone. It is a minor yet important reform that upholds individual liberty for all Utahns.