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Arizona task force: Court bail, fines need to be more fair

(AP Photo)

A task force has released a detailed report intended to improve Arizona’s system for imposing court-ordered sanctions and for making pretrial release decisions.

“The task force released 65 specific recommendations following 11 principles that, if implemented, the task force believes would significantly improve the fairness in the justice system in Arizona,” said Dave Byers, director of the administrative office of the courts for the Supreme Court of Arizona.

The first recommendation includes giving judges the authority to adjust fines.

“Impose a sanction when someone breaks the law but to not impose an excessive fine that a person would never be able to pay,” Byers said. “When you have someone who is very low income or indigent, definitely impose a sanction, but don’t make it so high that they’ll never have a chance to pay that fine back.”

There should also be ways to for people to pay online. Payment plans should also be available for those that can’t afford the full amount up front, according to the report.

“The task force also recommended that the courts not be required to suspend driver’s licenses as a first step, but instead only as a last resort,” Byers said.

People have come to realize that once you suspend someone’s driver’s license, it has a huge impact, he said.

“If you continue to drive because you need to go to work, even to get money to pay your fine, that’s a criminal offense,” he said. “And when you’re arrested on that, of course, you’re subject to being put in jail and more fines and fees being added.”

The other big component of the task force’s recommendations is that the courts change the system of bail.

“And to the greatest extent possible, eliminate money for freedom,” Byers said. “Instead, use a risk-based system.”

Essentially, high-risk individuals stay in jail, and low-risk individuals should be released to come back and deal with their offense at a later time, he said.

“So if you’re high-risk, just because you have access to money or a friendly bail bondsman, you shouldn’t get out of jail,” Byers said. “And if you’re a low risk individual, you shouldn’t stay in jail simply because you don’t have access to money.”

Many of the recommendations will require changes in the legislature and court rules. After being submitted to various groups and committees, Byers said the recommendations will be considered by the Arizona Judicial Council later this year.

The task force was requested earlier this year by Arizona chief justice Scott Bales.

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