Legislative Audit Exposes Needs for Pretrial Improvements in Utah

 

Few people would imagine Utah as a hotspot for bail reform. But the state’s legislature recently published a scathing critique of how the for-profit money bond industry operates there. It’s called A Performance Audit of Utah’s Monetary Bail System, and it is worth the read. Because what happens in Utah is probably happening where you live, too. 

The report describes the results from a review conducted by the benign-sounding Office of the Legislative Auditor General into the effectiveness of monetary pretrial release conditions in the state. Specifically, they examined cash bail—which requires arrested people to pay the full amount of a bond to the court prior to release—and surety bond—which allows arrested people to pay a percentage of the bail amount to a for-profit bail bondsman.

There was, however, nothing benign in what they found.

To begin with, the audit found that surety bonds were less effective than cash bail at getting people to court on time. Over the course of a fiscal year, 26 percent of surety bond cases had at least one Failure to Appear (FTA), compared to 17 percent of cash bail cases.

At PJI, we are working to replace all money during the pretrial process because research shows we don’t need it for those who get out, and we shouldn’t gamble with it for those who should stay in. But if we’re forced to compare outcomes between types of money bail, this study refutes claims about the efficiency/efficacy of surety bond. And while we recognize the auditors saw limits to their comparison, we like to offer yet another data point to consider: Washington, DC’s risk-based system sees roughly 90 percent of released people released show up at all court appearances despite having paid no money at all.    

Far more helpful to the growing body of research in the area of forfeiture, the audit found that surety agents are rarely required to forfeit bonds (i.e., to pay the full amount to the court when their clients do not appear). Of the 2,124 surety bond FTA’s during the audit period, only 38—1.7 percent—actually resulted in bond forfeitures. The report authors credit long grace periods and bondsmen delay in (and resistance to) payment.    

The audit also found that judges making pretrial release decisions often lacked adequate information on each defendant’s pretrial risk, criminal history, and prior FTA’s. (The report cites current pretrial justice research showing that decisions made without such information can negatively impact public safety, taxpayer resources and case outcomes.) The one exception was Salt Lake County, where a validated pretrial risk assessment tool has been in use since 2013 and helps to inform the pretrial release decision for 76 percent of all arrested people.

In response to these findings, the authors recommend that Utah:

  • review and resolve judicial directions that result in an over-reliance on surety bonds,
  • incorporate more validated risk assessment instruments and improved data collection to support their use, and
  • reduce the statutory timeframes for processing surety bond forfeitures to lessen the burden on the courts and increase the accountability of the surety industry.

As the report notes, “Utah’s pretrial landscape is changing;” shifting from charge-based to risk-based decisionmaking and incorporating more data and evidence-based practice. This audit provides valuable information to guide Utah’s leaders in improving their state’s pretrial justice system. We are pleased to have Utah join the nearly 25 other states looking deeply at bail reform this year.

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