Pima County Just Voted to Help Those Who Can’t Pay Bail. Will Others Follow?

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

By Bree Burkitt, Associated Press

December 9, 2020

The decision is a major win for the bail reform-movement in Arizona.

Pima County officials voted to create a program to pay the bail of some people who are charged with low-level crimes and can’t afford bonds.

The Arizona Daily Star reported the 3-2 vote last week by the Board of Supervisors, which gives the go-ahead to fund the county’s own bail-bonding operation through a local nonprofit.

To be eligible, inmates must have bond set at $30,000 or less, and the charges against them cannot be for homicide, sex crimes, or child exploitation. Defendants can’t have any kind of hold on them from another jurisdiction and would be supervised while on release.

Officials say the move will reduce the cost of running the Pima County Jail and avoid the job losses and family breakups that often occur when someone charged with a lesser offense spends weeks in pre-trial custody for lack of bail money.

“For too long, we have had a system that kept people confined in jail because they were impoverished,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told supervisors.

Supervisor Ally Miller, who voted against the measure, said she was concerned that “this will lead to a lot of people not coming back to court because they have no skin in the game.”

Pima County is the first to officially make such a move in Arizona.

An Arizona Supreme Court task force actually recommended eliminating cash bail in 2016. They instead recommended that judges determine whether someone should be held in custody based on their personal risk factors, not a standardized dollar amount assigned to each allegation. There was some progress in 2017 when the court urged judges to use the risk-assessment system over the traditional bail-bond-centric model. 

Julie Gunnigle, the democratic candidate for the Maricopa County Attorney who lost to the incumbent Allister Adel, called for an end to cash bail in the county leading up to the election. 

Eliminating cash bail altogether is a bit tricky, though. County attorneys can modify bail rules, but they can’t get rid of it altogether without changing the state law or constitution. 

However, there has been a recent push to eliminate bail nationwide.

In Los Angeles County, District Attorney George Gascón announced an end to the use of the cash bail system for certain minor offenses immediately Tuesday. The office, which is the largest prosecuting office covering the largest county in the country, plans to eliminate all cash bail starting in 2021. 

The drive to end bail has faced opposition as critics argue that it leaves little incentive for defendants to attend scheduled court appearances and could lead to additional crimes while they’re out of custody. 

A report from Illinois’ Cook County—where judges were ordered to set affordable bonds in 2017, allowing more people to be released pre-trial—shows that’s not the case. The research showed that pre-trial release didn’t lead to more crimes. About 17% of those released under the reform were charged with a new criminal case — the same percentage as before the 2017 reforms. 


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