A pair of bills to reform bail practices in Colorado passed their first committee hearings last Monday. But if financial and philosophical divides revealed by testimony are any indication, the bills will have anything but a smooth path to the governor’s desk.
Senate Bill 161 requires Colorado counties to develop pretrial release programs that reduce the use of cash bail. It was developed and ultimately endorsed by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which includes stakeholders from a diverse range of backgrounds including criminal defense, law enforcement, district attorneys’ offices and the judiciary.
To reduce reliance on cash bail, the bill requires counties to use risk assessment tools that help determine a person’s pretrial release conditions by estimating the likelihood they will show up for future court dates or commit more crimes while awaiting trial. Risk assessment tools carry a risk of bias, so Senate Bill 161 requires the Division of Criminal Justice to evaluate any risk assessment tool for accuracy. The bill also requires a judge to make the final decision about a person’s pretrial release conditions. It includes some state money to help subsidize counties’ costs of developing and running the programs.
A related measure, Senate Bill 172, requires bond hearings within 48 hours of someone’s arrest. It aims to help counties meet the mandate by creating a bond hearing officer position who would act as a magistrate to conduct hearings when needed. Judicial districts with counties designated as high priority or eligible county by the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Cash Fund Commission — which currently includes more than half of Colorado’s counties — can use the officer on weekends and holidays.
Senate Bill 172 also includes a grant fund for cash-strapped counties to purchase or upgrade audiovisual equipment for conducting remote hearings. Any judicial district can choose to hold hearings remotely, and proponents of the bill say it will save money by reducing resources spent transporting defendants to and from jail for bond hearings. The bill’s fiscal note estimates the cost to the judiciary of video conferencing at $400,000 for the next two fiscal years.