Nonprofit Group Aims to Eliminate Utah Cash Bail System / Public News Service

Studies show that in Salt Lake County, pre-trial detainees spend an average of 128 days in jail before their case goes to trial. (Victor Moussa/Adobe Stock)

October 14, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — Four of every five people currently sitting in Salt Lake County jails haven’t been convicted of a crime, but are waiting there to go to court because they’re too impoverished to make bail. Decarcerate Utah is a nonprofit group working to change the system so people can continue their lives while awaiting their day in court.

The group created a Salt Lake Community Bail Fund to provide community resources to help suspects post bail. But Emily Lyver, the fund’s co-founder, said the group’s ultimate goal is to end all pre-trial detentions in Utah.

“We would like to eliminate and abolish the cash-bail system. We think that the system creates a two-tiered justice system, for those who can pay and those who cannot. So, it disproportionately criminalizes people who are impoverished.”

Lyver said the group recently funded its first bail request, and is looking for additional support to help other defendants. She said studies show that in Salt Lake County, pre-trial detainees spend an average of 128 days in jail before their case is heard. Previously, she said, judges would set bail as high as $500,000 to ensure a person stayed in custody until trial. Utah legislators approved House Bill 206 this year to give courts more flexibility, but Lyver said it doesn’t go far enough.

“These are just exorbitant sums of money that are meant to be unpayable,” she said. “So, at least under this, if they want to hold someone in jail without bail, they’ll have to say so — whereas in the past, they would just set bail so high that no one could pay it.”

Lyver noted that holding someone for trial often costs the person much more than a guilty verdict, including the loss of their jobs, homes, cars and even custody of their children.

“We also know,” she said, “that people who are incarcerated before their trial tend to accept plea deals that are not in their best interest, just out of desperation to get out of jail.”

Statistics show the state’s pretrial-detention system falls hardest on people of color and low-income households. Lyver said five times the number of Black people and twice the number of Indigenous people are jailed than the overall population.

The bail study is online at hamiltonproject.org and the text of HB 206 is at ie.utah.gov.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service – UT