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The Black Hole of Colorado Bail Reform

Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver, Colorado

Here’s a quick summary of how bail bonds work: Bail is a sum a defendant, or family member or friend, gives to be released from custody. Bond is a payment from another person — a bondsman, usually — who submits payment on a defendant’s behalf in exchange for release. This is how it’s worked for a long time, but there’s pushback to change the system – to basically empty prisons of the oppressed, innocent, and poor who are victimized.

It ain’t that simple. Perpetrators who walk bail-free aren’t angels, and their stories tell tales of reform failure and the need for real change.

Crossing the Event Horizon into Failure

There’s a theme with cautionary tales of bail bond reform. Even though it has rough spots, it’s generally worked. If a defendant can’t afford bail, he can talk with a bondsman about a loan to secure freedom till his next court date. These aren’t perfect arrangements, but the level of confusion in our world based on more than 100 years of trial and error is far less than we’re seeing over the past couple of decades since bail reform became a hot topic.

Whether you’re in Jefferson County, Arapahoe County, or Denver County, you’re bound to get swept up in all the hoopla. Newspaper accounts hype the desperation of defendants-turned-victims who can’t catch a break from the American judicial system, and rhapsodize about needed change and how it’ll make the country better for everyone. There’s also the flip side of how bail bond failure is a runaway train waiting to derail.

What’s Really Happened Since 2013 in Colorado

Colorado’s Jefferson County enacted bail bond reform in 2013 and it’s been a national poster child for failure since. Basically, lawmakers passed a law that replaced a bail money system with an unsecured bond system with a robust pretrial services agency to make everything right. Here’s what really happened.

  • Elimination of bail schedules.
  • Elimination of pretrial risk assessments.
  • The average daily pretrial population and the average pretrial length of stay went up by 29%.
  • Defendants staying in jail more than one day saw a stratospheric increase of 141%.
  • Outstanding warrants for felonies went up 42%, misdemeanors by 34%.
  • The pretrial jail population increased from 35% to 42%.

That’s reform? In 2016, the Sheriff, District Attorney, and the County Supervisor wrote to Maryland lawmakers warning not only of overall failure, but also of false narratives and a growing pyre of empty promises. To add insult to injury, the letter included a stinging rebuke:

“The program did not work as intended. We did not save budget dollars. The system suffers from a lack of accountability.”

Ouch!

Blowin’ in The Wind

To be fair, let’s talk about the latest proposal rattling around capitol hill. The Colorado General Assembly is considering HB19-1226 – Bond Reform. Colorado bail bonding supporters get ready, because here’s the summary from the source, and try not to roll your eyes:

“Under current law, if a defendant is arrested for certain crimes and the court determines that the public would be in significant peril if the accused is released, the defendant is not bailable. The bill removes from the list of crimes that are not bailable the crime of possession of a weapon by a previous offender and sex assault crimes.”

The bill’s prime sponsors – Representative Leslie Hood, Representative Matt Soper, and Senator Pete Lee – added all sorts of ingredients to choke on:

  • A pretrial screening process; and
  • A chief judge administrative order specifying written criteria for the immediate release of certain defendants without any monetary conditions.
  • The person poses a substantial risk of danger to the safety of any person or the community; or
  • There is a substantial risk that the person will attempt to flee prosecution; or
  • There is a substantial risk that the person will attempt to obstruct or otherwise willfully avoid the criminal process; and
  • There are no reasonable nonmonetary conditions of release that reasonably assure:
  • The safety of any person or the community;
  • That the person will not attempt to flee prosecution; or
  • That the person will not attempt to obstruct or otherwise willfully avoid the criminal justice process.

The sponsors also cemented the kinds of bonds that a court can set including an unsecured personal recognizance bond, another one with nonmonetary conditions to force the defendant back to court and protect the community, one with monetary conditions, and one with secured real estate conditions.

You can judge for yourself by reading it over.

A Cautionary Tale of Early Freedom

Opponents of bail bonds reform can sound like carnival barkers juiced up on “Speed” or a politician threatened by election failure warning of “Deep State” conspirators, but when the criticism comes from someone within law enforcement, we should take notice, right? Right?

In an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle, Pasadena, Texas police officer Josh Bruegger says that as a Harris County lawman he’s at “ground zero” in the fight to reform the criminal justice system, but current laws on the books and some on the horizon border on dangerous or irresponsible. “As someone who works every day in that system, I agree that there are certainly changes that we can make to ensure justice is served more fairly and efficiently,” he said.

Bruegger recounted that armed robbery suspect Jakouri Jones was apprehended and jailed, but was released on “unsupervised personal recognizance bonds twice in just one month.” Forget the fact the suspect had been arrested twice before for aggravated assault on a police officer and aggravated robberies, which are felonies. Where’s reform really needed?

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