Colorado proposal for weekend bond hearings could have big financial impacts in Summit County
BRECKENRIDGE — Proposed changes to bond hearing policies and procedures around the state could have significant impacts on the Fifth Judicial District, including right here in Summit County.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis signed the Prompt Pretrial Liberty and Fairness bill into law, which outlines changes to existing bond posting protocols, including how quickly defendants must be released from jail after posting bond, and setting limits on processing fees. But the law also requires the chief judge of each of the state’s 22 judicial districts to develop a plan for the possibility of a new law that would require all in-custody defendants to have a bond hearing within 48 hours of arrest.
“I think the larger problem that’s being addressed by a statute like this is to make an effort to ensure that people have an opportunity to post bond as soon as possible, so people are not unnecessarily detained when that can be avoided,” said Fifth Judicial District chief judge Mark Thompson, who noted there were definitive pros and cons to the proposal. “Something like that is disruptive to anyone’s life.
“The outcome of the hearing isn’t the issue so much as the ability for these people to have due process, be heard and allow the court to make an informed decision for if they should be detained pretrial, if they should be supervised or if they should be given a standard bond that just prohibits them from reoffending.”
In Colorado, there are a number of charges that don’t allow defendants to post bond before seeing a judge, including acts of domestic violence, stalking and sex offenses. For people in custody, the law would undoubtedly make a difference. If someone was arrested, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, for example, court closures mean that person would be jailed until the following Monday — five days — until getting a bond hearing with a judge.
“Individuals can be arrested on a Friday afternoon, and on a three-day weekend, they could be stuck in jail until Tuesday,” said Denise Maes, a public policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado. “What we’ve found is that in some metro areas, their dockets can be so heavy that a person doesn’t get a hearing until Wednesday. So now someone with just a minor infraction could be spending a lot of time in jail. They’re presumptively innocent and absolutely should be guaranteed time for quicker hearings. … There are good legal reasons this should be put into the state’s statutes.”
If the new law is passed, it could mandate that courts hold bond hearings within 48 hours of an individual’s arrest. That means courts around the state would not only have to adjust their holiday plans but also would be required to begin offering weekend bond hearings. And for communities in the Fifth Judicial District — Summit, Eagle, Clear Creek and Lake counties — it could present some major problems.
In October, Thompson provided the state with a report of current conditions in the district and a presumptive plan for how to make the proposed regulations work if they pass during the legislative session next year.
Between district and county court hearings, the combined caseload in the district for the 2019 fiscal year was 14,124 cases, including nearly 4,500 in Summit County. Despite those numbers, an average of about eight defendants would require weekend bond hearings each week under the proposed requirement.
Thompson’s report notes that within the district, the most practical way to make the proposition work would be through careful planning and further integration of technology into the process. The plan essentially calls for a rotating schedule of courthouses open for half a day on Sundays, split between Breckenridge, Georgetown and Eagle.
The district’s 10 judges also would handle hearings on a rotating basis. Because five judges currently reside in Summit County, Thompson expects Summit ultimately would handle about 50% of all weekend hearings. Ideally, inmates could teleconference in for hearings with a judge from their respective jails, cutting down on travel expenses and hassles.
But part of the problem is that it takes a lot more than just a judge and a defendant to hold a hearing. In order for a defendant to phone in, they’ll need a deputy, who otherwise wouldn’t be working, to handle the call at a cost of about $50 an hour. The courthouse also would need at least two additional deputies to provide security. Because the hearings will still be public, it also means courts will have to spend extra on things like snow removal, maintenance and cleaning costs.
More directly, the proposal would mean considerably more work for the district attorney’s office — an estimated $19,000 increase to the budget annually — and the regional public defender’s office, which staffs six attorneys. In his report, Thompson also wrote that it likely would require the addition of a “specialist” who could handle things like paperwork without creating an undue impact on existing staff.
Of note, Maes said the governor’s office has been working to set aside funds for the potential expansion, though it’s unclear how it will be allocated or to whom. But others aren’t so certain the state will be much help.
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said it was unlikely the state would help to front the bill for all the additional costs and continued to say the additional work could have detrimental affects on staffing for his and the public defender’s office.
“The state doesn’t have the money to fund these programs across the state,” Brown said. “It’s highly unlikely the Legislature would shoulder that burden. If they enact the law, that burden will go to the local governments, and they’ll expect the local governments to pick up the tab.
“We have challenges attracting young lawyers to the office due to a lot of factors including cost of housing. Each time you put a new layer or a new requirement in terms of time at work, it takes away from one of our best selling points of living here, which is the quality of life. It’s not insignificant. We’ll adapt and find suitable lawyers to staff our office well. But the realities of having choices in a job market are inescapable. This makes our jobs a lot less attractive.”
Brown continued to say that while the idea could create substantial problems in more rural and less dense districts, it would be possible to achieve the state’s goals if they sign off on Thompson’s planned use of technology. Brown continued to say that the better solution is to better use other programs, like his office’s felony summons program for nonviolent offenders, to help reduce the number of people in jail in the first place.
“We don’t know what the Legislature is going to require,” Brown said. “It’s a minor nightmare. But I think we can achieve the desired result. … Technology allows us to get a solution in a cost effective manner. But if every county in a district were required to support this plan with an open courtroom as if it were a regular work day, that wouldn’t be feasible or practical. … We all need to recognize that while police do work 24 hours a day, that not every facet of the criminal justice system is capable of working around the clock.”
Thompson also expressed optimism that the proposal was solving a real problem but voiced that the state likely would have to make concessions in understanding that more rural communities could be slammed with financial and staffing hardships if things aren’t done right.
“There are a lot of logistical hurdles to jump over for this to happen,” Thompson said. “But we’ll get it done. If the Legislature thinks this is the right thing to do, it’s not our job to question their motives. Our job is to follow the law. So we’ll do it, and we’ll do it well. The biggest concern the courts have is making sure it’s not an unfunded mandate. Because it does have fiscal impacts, and if the Legislature wants us to do something, it’s important they provide the funds for it.”
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