Summit sheriff, chief judge push for pretrial services to prevent additional offenses
Program would provide liaisons and funding to ensure alleged offenders can meet bond conditions
Local officials are pushing for the implementation of new pretrial services in the community, meant to provide supervision for individuals released on bond, combat financial inequities in the court system and better ensure those accused of crimes appear for their hearings.
Fifth Judicial District Chief Judge Mark Thompson provided an overview of the proposed program during a work session with the Summit Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, June 22. Thompson said there are currently no pretrial services anywhere within the district — which includes Summit, Eagle, Clear Creek and Lake counties — but he hopes to have a program up and running within Summit County by the start of next year. After that, the services could begin to expand into the rest of the district.
Summit County courts handle about 3,000 criminal cases per year, according to Thompson, most of which are lower-level traffic and misdemeanor offenses. The district court handles about 250 felony cases per year. In about 1,500 cases a year, Thompson said local judges set bonds, essentially a condition of release meant to ensure a defendant returns to court.
All defendants in Colorado have a statutory right to post bond, except in Class 1 felony cases like murder and kidnapping. There are a few types of conditions judges can place on an alleged offender’s pretrial release, including cash or surety monetary bonds. Bonds frequently include non-monetary conditions, as well, such as drug and alcohol monitoring, curfews, regular check-ins with the court and more.
Cracks in the system
Thompson said the current system has significant problems, both with efficacy and equity.
“Empirical studies are pretty clear that monetary bond is essentially entirely ineffective at reducing risk and compelling appearance,” Thompson said. “It is completely an artifice at this point that we use to keep people in jail because we’re afraid of them. … It certainly favors wealthy folks, which is the other big problem. Money bonds really tend to disproportionately affect people of color, people of reduced economic means. If you don’t have property, if you don’t have good connections to the community, if you don’t have money — you’re not going to get out.”
Non-monetary bonds come with their own issues, especially in a place like Summit County. Currently, defendants are responsible for paying the bill on any of their bond conditions. For example, while a routine drug screening might cost a defendant $5 in Denver, it can cost a Summit County resident between $25 and $30. That’s as much as $240 a month for those with twice-weekly testing.
For a defendant who can’t easily pay, it often means they’ll stop taking part in the testing, violate their bond conditions and find themselves back in court on another charge. It also might mean someone whose sobriety is necessary to ensure the safety of the community is no longer being tested.
The other major issue is there isn’t currently anyone monitoring bond compliance in the community, at least not closely. Thompson said the county’s probation office is the “clearing house” for some pretrial services, but those responsibilities are outside of the office’s statutory role and can even represent a conflict, as it forces community members who are presumed innocent to interact with an agency designed to supervise individuals who have been convicted of crimes.
As such, officials are hoping that by offering dedicated supervision and removing financial barriers, the local court system can improve for the individuals awaiting adjudication in their case and the community at large.
Creating a more robust support system
The idea of the pretrial services program is to bring in a couple of new employees with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office who would serve as liaisons between the defendants, testing companies and other community resources. They would essentially help defendants set up their testing appointments, check in on them regularly to make sure they’re going to their screenings and know about upcoming hearings, and help to connect them with other community resources that could be beneficial, like mental health treatment.
The pretrial service employees would screen arrested individuals as they come into the jail to determine if they would qualify for the program. Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said all but those who pose serious safety risks would likely be eligible. The service would also help to provide more comprehensive information to judges so they can make informed decisions when setting bond, such as the defendant’s position within the community, flight risk, employment history and criminal history, which is unavailable to judges.
Additionally, Thompson said the district was awarded a $50,000 grant this year from the state-run Correctional Treatment Board, which he plans to funnel into the program to provide financial subsidies on a sliding scale so defendants can afford to pay for drug testing or other conditions of their release.
“It’s really sad when you’re sitting in my position, and you see people just over and over and over, and you see the same thing happen,” Thompson said. “… We need to do the best job we can for that part of our community when they’re accused and give them a fair shake in our justice system regardless of their economic circumstances.”
The new program would fall in line with others already in place locally, such as the Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team, which provides on-scene mental health response and case management; the Strategies to Avoid Relapse and Recidivism program, which provides behavioral health and substance use treatment for individuals in jail; and the Bridges program, which provides mental health resources for accused offenders making their way through the judicial system.
Thompson believes the new service would help to reduce the number of people failing to appear in court and re-offending before trial. But there are other potential benefits, as well, such as reducing the overall number of detainees in the jail, operating costs, capital expenditures like jail upgrades and the county’s risk of liability while keeping someone detained.
In addition to assertions from Thompson and FitzSimons that offering pretrial services is the morally tenable move, it might also be a necessity soon given a growing push from the state Legislature for criminal justice reforms.
“The bottom line is we’re going to be doing this one way or another,” Thompson said. “… There’s a fairly strong presence for the ACLU and others down at the general assembly, and I think the pressure is on them to do something with this. Sooner or later, they will. Sadly, I think it will be another unfunded mandate coming at our community. On the positive side of it, frankly, this is the right thing to do.”
A better solution for arrestees
The county is already prioritizing ways to keep anyone who is not considered a safety risk out of jail. Last year, officials worked proactively to screen and release arrestees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, cutting the jail population in half in less than a month. FitzSimons said the philosophy has largely remained in place and that there are now about 30 inmates at any given time as opposed to more than 60 pre-pandemic.
FitzSimons said that’s the best solution for everyone and that providing pretrial services on top of reasonable bond conditions helps offenders keep their lives on track while they wait for trial.
“We know the vast majority of people would qualify for this program,” FitzSimons said. “And the vast majority of people deserve to go on with their life and be successful awaiting trial versus sitting in jail and losing everything because you can’t post bond. In the meantime, while you’re sitting there, your mental health has declined, maybe your physical health has declined. You’ve lost your job. Your car has been towed. It’s Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong … all for making a mistake, for having a bad day.”
The county is on board with the program. During the meeting Tuesday, the commissioners directed staff to begin working with Thompson and FitzSimons on the financial details.
In an interview with the Summit Daily on Thursday, June 24, Commissioner Tamara Pogue lauded the officials for their proactive approach.
“I think we’re really fortunate in Summit County that we have leadership in our law enforcement space — and I use that term broadly to include the courts — who are committed to reform,” Pogue said. “You can’t look at the national conversation around law enforcement and not recognize that there are some things that have to change.
“Obviously bail reform, any strategy that helps keep folks out of detention is one we need to consider. But as we saw from the legislation this session … finding the right strategies is proving difficult. So I think pretrial services in a rural, resort community like ours can be a model for this larger conversation.”
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