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Bail risk assessments raise concerns among lawmakers, bondsmen

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Recent challenges to New Jersey's bail bonds laws have been a key issue for Utah lawmakers as they consider bail reforms to the state court system.

Recent challenges to New Jersey’s bail bonds laws have been a key issue for Utah lawmakers as they consider bail reforms to the state court system.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Recent challenges to New Jersey's bail bonds laws have been a key issue for Utah lawmakers as they consider bail reforms to the state court system.

State legislators this week considered delaying the adoption of a computer algorithm designed to help judges determine a suspect's flight risk. Judges would use the algorithm — and their own judgement — to decide to what degree a defendant can be trusted outside of jail while awaiting trial, or whether that person should remain in custody.

The algorithm considers factors such as the crime allegedly committed and its severity, a person's criminal history and whether they've previously failed to appear in court. Utah State Courts plans to implement the algorithm in November.

"For lack of a better term, it's like a FICO score for criminals," Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said Wednesday during a meeting of the Legislature's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee. "Then it tells the judge basically whether or not they can be released on their own recognizance."

Since changes to New Jersey's bail program took effect in January, several lawsuits have been filed against the state, including a federal suit from a grieving mother who says the state's bail reform law freed the man who ended up shooting and killing her 26-year-old son.

Ray recommended delaying the algorithm's implementation, saying it needs further consideration by the Legislature.

"I have a lot of concerns about what's happening under the radar that we have not been told about," he said of the proposed bail reforms. "I'm not saying it's a bad system. I'm just saying it's a huge policy shift, and I think it needs to have legislative approval to move forward to do this."

After a close vote Wednesday, lawmakers decided to formally ask the courts to wait.

Utah State Courts general counsel Brent Johnson said the reforms will give judges "more information on whether someone is a particular risk."

"It is just a piece of information," he said. "It does not mandate a particular result."

Johnson acknowledged that more people would be released on their own recognizance under the reforms, but he said others would still have the option to purchase a bail bond.

Many people who are neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community end up in custody, he said, and without the information provided by the pretrial assessment, all offenders are essentially treated the same based on the type of crime allegedly committed.

Utah State Courts officials say the program has already undergone careful scrutiny, including a legislative audit that pointed the courts in that direction. It's still on track for a Nov. 13 rollout with a Harvard study planned on how it's working, said courts spokesman Geoff Fattah.

"We feel that this has been carefully studied, carefully analyzed, and in addition to that, there was a legislative audit that was released in January that strongly encouraged us to implement this tool," Fattah said.

Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, spoke against the proposed bail changes, citing the New Jersey shooting as well as an incident in Albuquerque where three men released on their own recognizance went on to rape a 12-year-old girl.

Clayton said despite claims the new algorithm would not do away with the existing bail system, bail licenses have been turned in by several companies in states where similar reforms have been implemented.

According to Ray, enacting such a change in Utah would "basically do away with the bail bond industry."

Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said the bail bond industry benefits those with the money to purchase their way out of jail, adding that the industry has a "complete conflict of interest" in opposing the algorithm.

Tolman touted New Jersey's bail reforms, saying total crime has dropped more than 6 percent and violent crime is down by more than 12 percent since the changes took effect.

"We can point to tragic stories where policies fail us," he said, "but for every story where the bail bondsmen may share about what they perceive to be the failure of risk assessments, I can tell you five stories of catastrophic consequences when we willfully ignore the risk of violent offenders and allow them to just purchase their freedom."

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, argued that the algorithm could be a tool to quickly determine whether a suspect could be released.

"You see in the movies how, 'Oh, you've got 24 hours to charge him or release him.' That's not the law in Utah," he said.

For Utah, Thatcher noted, it's 72 "business" hours for a suspect to either be charged or released, and that could further delay an innocent person's release.

"Do they still have a job if they've been in jail for that long? The consequences for being in jail are significant," he said.

Contributing: Associated Press