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District attorney, courts clash over the future of bail

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By Emile Hallez

Jeffco’s Justice Services Department is clashing with District Attorney Scott Storey over the future of bail, with both entities vying for $200,000 that could continue funding for a recently overhauled pretrial services program.

Though the nature of their difference is ideological, the courts aren’t going to flinch, Chief District Judge Brooke Jackson indicated. If funding isn’t approved for four existing pretrial services jobs, the jail’s population will either increase, or more defendants will be released into the community with less supervision, he said.

“We’re going ahead with our bond project. I don’t think any judge is going to let anybody out who they think is a community risk. … We (either) let the same number of people out, but the supervision is thin, or, the jail population goes up. It’s one or the other,” Jackson said in a July 14 meeting with the county commissioners. “If you don’t approve this, we’ll do what we have to, but we’re not going back to the bond schedule.”

Many county judges apparently favor the new system, which requires nearly every arrested defendant to appear before a judge, who in turn determines a bail amount suitable for the defendant’s financial circumstances and appropriate to help ensure public safety.

Storey, however, is an unapologetic advocate of the county’s former bail schedule, under which charges categorically carried specific bail amounts. In the former system, large surety bonds were the norm, leading private bail bondsmen to provide bail at a cost to defendants. The bail schedule was thus largely dependent on private industry, which Storey said was typically more efficient than government.

“I’ve often wondered, ‘Why are we doing this? … It’s a national pretrial services movement … that’s trying to get rid of bond,” Storey said in the July 14 meeting. “I’m here to tell you that we do not have jail overcrowding. We maintain it below capacity. … It’s a solution looking for a problem.”

Though defendants are entitled to having bail set by judges, whether the amount of bail is unaffordable for many should not dictate policy decisions, Storey said.

Four years ago Jeffco created the Justice Oversight Committee, a group tasked with bringing more efficiencies to the county’s justice system to help cope with projected revenue declines in coming years. The group, whose membership included the county’s chief judge, sheriff, district attorney and other high-level officials, took aim at the existing bail system.

According to the Jefferson County Bail Project’s summary document, the inmate population at the jail was increasing, and about half of the population was on “pretrial status,” meaning those inmates had yet to post bail. The cost to house an inmate was also much higher than that of supervising defendants who posted bail — about $70 per day compared to $2 a day. Further, the bail schedule, which outlined amounts ranging from $100 for a charge of tampering with a motor vehicle to $25,000 or more for felonies such as arson, made pretrial release exceptionally difficult for defendants without assistance from a bondsman, who typically charges at least 10 percent of the full amount of bail. Under the schedule, bail amounts for felony charges such as murder were determined by a judge.

“Most of the group expressed a general awareness that a money-based system of bail was perceived as inherently unfair,” the summary document states.

Following a research project called “The Bail Impact Study,” the group launched a pilot which mandated that judges individually set bail for every defendant and allow income levels to factor into bail amounts. Further, the pilot increased pretrial supervision, which assessed defendants’ risk levels for failing to return to court as well as their potential threats to the community.

According to the group’s research, the financial component of bail is not strongly linked to public safety.

Following the research phase, a new committee composed of more than a dozen members, including judicial staff and other county officials, voted almost unanimously this year to terminate the old bail schedule on April 3, making most of the pilot program’s components official. Storey cast the only dissenting vote.

Though Storey said he favors the work of the county’s pretrial services employees, the $200,000 in potential funding would be better used in another department.

“Compared to other jurisdictions, we’re woefully understaffed,” Storey said of his department. “I call the bond project ‘the experiment.’ … (It) takes the private sector out of the picture. … It’s government funding. That’s what we’ve got here.”

Though the bail project currently is operated on a grant, funding for the four new pretrial services positions will end this fall, necessitating the $200,000 from the county, advocates said. The four employees also represent only about a quarter of the additional staff requested by the project’s committee. The workers oversee about 180 defendants released into the community at a given time.

Though admittedly understaffed, the program will continue regardless of the commissioners’ decision on funding, which will be made when the county’s budget is approved later this year. That fact makes a decision difficult for the county, Commissioner Don Rosier said.

“I’m pulled. If it is not fully funded, are we setting up a system for failure?” Rosier said. “You’re going to operate this way no matter what, and that puts me in an uncomfortable position,” he added, specifically to Jackson.

But last week, Rosier indicated in a brief interview with the Columbine Courier that the program might get his vote for the additional funding.

“We have to look at pretrial services and funding them at the level they need,” he said.

And Commissioner Faye Griffin, who was a member of the committee that voted to make the program official, said she did not foresee the funding issue.

“The project itself is a good one. … (But) no one ever brought up that it was being funded by a grant,” she said last week. “We have not discussed what we’re going to do with the budget.”

Critics of the project, including large bail-bond firms, have pointed to a lack of peer review in its research, a detail Jackson and others acknowledged. However, the program is still in a nascent stage, Jackson said, explaining that any adjustments needed would be made.

“I was astounded when I saw the data — or lack of data — that has been used as a basis for this,” said former district judge Pete Weir, who contended that the bail-bond industry should have been included in the program’s development. “If we had the data, if we had the facts, we may not have the controversy that we have today.”

Weir is planning to run in the next election for district attorney in 2012. Storey is term limited.

But District Judge Margie Enquist, who helped develop the program, noted a key distinction between the bail bonding industry and pretrial services. Though bondsmen often tout their ability to ensure bailed defendants return to court, pretrial services keeps tabs on the defendants after they post bail, Enquist explained.

“These folks aren’t monitoring for drug and alcohol use or any of the other things pretrial services does,” she said.

 

Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.