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Designers of new pretrial bond program get grilled at town hall

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By AJ Vicens

The architects of a program aimed at releasing more defendants before their trials were grilled June 20 about how it would work and if it would really save the county money.

Mike Jones, manager of the county's criminal justice strategic planning staff, told county residents and several elected officials that the program will increase public safety and court appearances by defendants while safeguarding due process.

The program, developed by Jones, his staff, county judges, the sheriff's office and other county leaders, is slated to begin in August. It will increase resources for pretrial services, which will then provide judges with more complete information prior to their rulings on whether defendants are released on bail.

The county is counting on a $950,000 federal grant to fund the pilot program for two years, but the grant hasn't been awarded yet. If the grant doesn’t materialize, Jones and other proponents suggest boosting fees paid by defendants to raise nearly $500,000 per year to fund the extra staff for pretrial services.

Proponents of the plan say it would free up to 300 jail beds every day, which could be used for more serious criminals or to house federal inmates, an operation that netted Jeffco more than $3.5 million in 2008. Proponents also cite the fact that hosting a jail inmate costs an average of $65 per day.

"This plan is more preventative than reactive," Jones said.

Jones' presentation at Jeffco Commissioner Kathy Hartman's June 20 town hall meeting was met with heavy skepticism from several county residents, state Reps. Jim Kerr and Ken Summers, and Jeffco District Attorney Scott Storey.

"This is not a black-and-white system," Storey told Jones. "There's a lot of grays to it."

Storey said he's leery of a system that would mandate that every defendant see a judge before being granted bail. He said he would have to add at least one attorney to his office to handle the extra work.

In response to a question from a county resident, Jones said the plan will prove successful if it can reduce the number of people who fail to appear for court hearings, and if it can maintain or reduce the number of people who commit crimes while on bond. The plan doesn't have much room for success, as roughly 97 percent of defendants currently under pretrial supervision make all court appearances.

Hartman said the program will help people in jail who are there only because they can't come up with bail money.

"We are paying for 300 people a day that ought to be out on pretrial supervision," Hartman said.

Storey questioned her logic.

"If they can't pay bail, how are they going to pay (increased pretrial supervision fees)?" Storey said. He was also skeptical that people who are in jail only because they can't raise bail money represent 300 people per day.

Jones said defendants will end up paying less in the end because instead of coming up with $500 to pay for a $5,000 bond, they'll pay much less in total fees to pretrial services.

"We're basically redirecting money spent one way (on commercial bail bonds) and spending it in a new way," Jones said.

Kerr seemed to be the most opposed to the program, peppering Jones with combative questions and even storming out of the room at one point when he couldn't ask a question, only to return a short time later. Kerr asked Jones how successful the program has been in Larimer County, which has had a similar system for more than three years. Jones said Larimer County's failure-to-appear rate is less than 2 percent.

"If this is really a good idea, wouldn't they be doing it in other locations?" Kerr said. Jones told him that pieces of the plan were taken from counties all over the country, and that there is virtually nothing new in the plan. It's only new to Jeffco, Jones said.

Summers said that he liked parts of the plan but wasn't sure it would work.

"This seems like one of those things where, theoretically, it makes sense, but practically there are some things that'll have to be worked out," Summers said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.