‘A level playing field’: How pretrial services have transformed which defendants the Summit County court allows back into the community while awaiting trial
By gathering additional information about a defendant's community ties and their possible risks to the public, pretrial services results in more equitable treatment, according to the Sheriff's Office and a Summit County judge
When a community member is arrested and charged with a crime, the impacts can be devastating, especially if they can’t post bail.
While still presumed innocent, a person held in jail because they can’t post bond can “lose everything,” according to Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons.
A few days behind bars and someone can lose their employment, their housing, their vehicle and sometimes even their dog, FitzSimons said, noting that even two people charged with the same crime often have differing abilities to post bond.
“You and I get arrested for theft. It’s a $100 bond. You have $100, but I don’t. You leave, but I stay (in jail) until I can see a judge,” FitzSimons said. “Now I finally go out back into the community, and I’ve lost everything. Now I’m behind the eight ball, and now my chances of recidivism are probably high.”
To create more equity in who the criminal justice system holds in jail versus releases — and to help prevent the ill effects of being held due to an inability to post bail — the Summit County Sheriff’s Office last June started up a pretrial services program.
Pretrial service programs help criminal court judges determine whether a particular defendant is safe to be released on bail and under what conditions. If the defendant can be released, pretrial services can help monitor the defendant to ensure that they return to court and remain sober.
FitzSimons said that ever since becoming sheriff and inheriting the county jail, he has sought to reform how defendants are treated while awaiting trial. From years of talks with former 5th Judicial District Chief Judge Mark Thompson, FitzSimons said a pretrial services program eventually took shape.
Since its implementation last year, Summit County’s pretrial services program has helped reduce the jail population, resulted in fewer defendants missing court dates and led to a reduction in rates of reoffending, according to the FitzSimons and the Sheriff’s Office employees who run the program.
“This puts everybody on a level playing field,” FitzSimons said. “You and I get arrested, and now we go through the same assessment. Now it’s about risk.”
‘Humanize the process’
Soon after an individual is booked at the Summit County Jail, the pretrial screening process begins, according to Summit County Pretrial Services Technician Kelly Lecklitner. During this process, one of the county’s two pretrial service technicians will gather information about the individual, their community ties, their family, their employment status and more.
“In the past, honestly, criminal history was the measure for bond,” Lecklitner said. “Now, the judge has a real snapshot of who this person is.”
When an individual is going through the pretrial process, Lecklitner said the team doesn’t refer to them as a defendant — rather they refer to them as a client. The focus isn’t on their charges or their case, she said. It’s on who they are as a person and, early in the process, the pretrial technicians sit down for face-to-face intake conversation with their client. Summit County’s pretrial services team currently has about 85 clients, she said.
During intake, Lecklitner said the pretrial services team aims to build rapport and a trusting relationship with their client. The pretrial service technician also will work to identify their client’s basic needs, she said, since any individual will be more able to comply with the court system if their basic needs are met.
“We all make poor decisions in life. It’s not fair for us to just be defined by that poor decision,” Lecklitner said. “So what it does is it shows the judge there’s more to this person than just the charges they were arrested on. And so it helps the judge to see this person as a human. I would say it humanizes the process more than just being based on criminal charges.”
By assessing a client’s needs, the pretrial services team can connect an individual with community resources including those available through the Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Recidivism, another Sheriff’s Office program, Lecklitner said.
Pretrial services can also help clients with basic needs like clothing and food vouchers and sometimes provides clients with a cellphone to ensure they have a way to communicate with the court while under pretrial supervision, she said.
Detentions Commander Jake Straw noted that many of the clients pretrial services handles became involved in the criminal justice system due to issues with substance use. Getting these individuals connected with resources can help them remain sober and increase compliance through the court process, he said, noting the county has received a state grant to offer free alcohol and drug screening for pretrial service clients.
“They have some preexisting or underlying mental health or substance use,” Straw said. “This program allows for those people to have an avenue that they don’t have to stay in custody because of a bad choice that they made while they were under the influence of whatever substance they use or if they’re actually in a mental health crisis.”
The pretrial services team also runs a risk assessment, known as the Colorado Pretrial Assessment Tool. This empirically-validated tool helps assess whether an individual poses a risk of failing to appear for their court date or could pose a risk of being arrested for another crime if they were to be released. Another risk assessment tool is run for clients facing domestic violence charges.
Once the pretrial services team has compiled all the information about a client, a judge is able to use that information to inform decisions related to bail. Meanwhile, the District Attorney’s Office and public defender also receive the same information that can inform their arguments around bail.
“Everybody has the same information,” Straw said. “So they’re able to intelligently discuss and argue that public risk thing. Then the judge ultimately has the ability to assign bond.”
With additional information about the defendant and the level of risk they pose to the community — and knowing the individual will be monitored by pretrial services — the program makes judges more comfortable lower bond or granting a personal recognizance bond, he said.
Because of that, how much money a person has available to post a bond becomes less important than who they are as a person, according to Sylvia Simms, the lieutenant in charge of pretrial services and the Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Recidivism program.
“There’s a lot of people in Summit County especially that work multiple jobs, support their families,” Simms said. “They made a mistake. They were arrested. We don’t want them to lose their jobs. We don’t want their family to be evicted. This program was created for them. So they have plenty of opportunities to go back to work and still provide for their families.”
The in-depth assessment of each client also allows the pretrial services team to individualize a monitoring plan tailored to the needs of each client, Lecklitner said. Then the pretrial service technicians serve as a coach, a cheerleader and a referee all at once, she said, helping guide the client through the pretrial process, cheering on their successes and blowing the whistle to bring them back into compliance if necessary.
Public safety is always the first consideration, Lecklitner said, since the pretrial services team would never want someone who poses a safety risk to the community to be released. But, she added, pretrial services offers defendants the ability to prove they can remain an active part of the community.
“We can monitor people that can still be successful in the community,” Straw said. “The mission of the jail is not to punish someone, right? There has to be that balance between public safety, their current charges and how successful this person can still be in society.”
‘Oversight and guidance’
In Summit County, Judge Edward Casias is the primary judge making bail-related decisions in criminal cases. Under the 8th Amendment, almost every defendant is entitled to bail, Casias said in a phone interview, except those accused of the most heinous crimes such as first-degree murder.
Like FitzSimons, Casias noted that those who are arrested and held because they cannot post bail risk losing their livelihood — their job, their home, their car, their family support.
“It has a lasting and horrific impact on the person charged,” Casias said.
That’s where Summit County’s pretrial services program comes in. The program is designed to not only allow people to be released on bond but to provide a system of “oversight and guidance” while they await their next court date, he said.
“The more information I have, the better off I am in trying to assess who should be released and under what conditions,” Casias said, “and, on the flip side, who is probably not amenable to release due to the past conditions or the nature of the offense.”
Prior to the implementation of Summit County’s pretrial service’s program, Casias said he had to rely mostly on a bond schedule, a list of bail amount recommendations for different charges, while setting bail.
The report compiled by the pretrial services team now helps the court look at the things it’s supposed to look at, such as employment status, a person’s character and reputation, and whether they have friend or family to help them get to court. These are things that Casias said could be hard for a judge to ask about during a case without risking the defendant talking about the case.
“Pretrial services is not about interrogating a crime,” Casias said. “We’re trying to figure out: ‘What are your ties to the community? Do you have a way for us to get a hold of you if we need to? Do you have a way to get to court? What are your financial resources? Do you need help?'”
If a defendant needs to see a drug counselor or therapist but lacks health insurance, pretrial services can help connect them with resources that can help them apply for Medicaid or a nonprofit that offers those services at low or no cost, Casias said.
Moreover, the free drug testing provided through pretrial services helps people afford the testing required to be out on bail and help keep them away from substances that could wind them up in more trouble, he said.
An indirect result of pretrial services, Casias said, is that fewer innocent people will feel forced to plead guilty just to get out of jail. Again noting the negative “familial and financial impacts” a person can face while being held in jail, he said defendants have sometimes pleaded guilty just to get out of jail — rather than drag their case on by pleading not guilty and taking it to trial.
“Ultimately, it’s their choice. I advise them it’s not a good thing, now they have a criminal conviction,” Casias said. “But if they’re out on liberty through pretrial services, they don’t have to be placed into that corner of ‘Do I just plead guilty to get out?'”
In addition to giving defendants an opportunity to be successful in the community, how well an individual does on pretrial services can serve to inform the court how well that person might do on probation, Casias said. Someone who has shown they can comply with the oversights in place for pretrial services is more likely to be a candidate for a community sentence — rather than prison sentence — such as probation, he said.
Since the implementation of pretrial services, Casias said he has seen more defendants showing up to their court dates and fewer warrants issued for failure to appear. While there are costs associated with the pretrial service program, he said he expects the costs of holding an individual in jail are greater than those to monitor them upon release.
“They’re people in our community,” Casias said. “They are probably going to be here, and I’d much rather have them be healthy and crime free rather than continuing to struggle and being contacted by police and brought to the jail.”
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