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Arizona among best in nation for pretrial practices

(Flickr/Joe Gratz)
LISTEN: National report: Arizona gets ‘B’ for pretrial justice.

PHOENIX — Arizona received higher marks than most of the nation in a study released Wednesday that analyzed the pretrial system of each state.

Arizona was one of eight states to receive a B grade for its pretrial practices — such as release conditions involved bonds and bail — on the State of Pretrial Justice in America report. A majority of the nation received a C or D, while 17 states were handed an F.

Dave Byers, the administrative director for the Arizona Supreme Court, said he was glad Arizona was rewarded for its reform efforts. Last year, state courts launched a task force with a goal of improving the system.

“What we have been working on in Arizona is to change the pretrial release system from one that requires a person to pay money to get out of jail while their waiting for their trial to a system that’s based on risk,” he said.

Basically, low- and medium-risk individuals are not required to post bail as they can safely stay in the community and will more than likely turn up at their court date.

“On the other hand, if you’re a high-risk individual, we don’t want you out at all,” Byers said. “Those people should remain in jail and not be able to buy their way out.”

Byers cited the recent arrest of two drug cartel members arrested in Arizona. They were released on a $300,000 bond within hours and disappeared.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the CEO of Pretrial Justice Institute which compiled the report, said such cases were proof the bail system in America was broken in two ways.

“One, our jails are filled with people — mostly people of color — who are just too poor to post bond, but who pose no danger to the community,” she said.

“And two, people who have money — no matter how dangerous they are — are paying for bond and walking right out.”

Burdeen said arbitrarily imposing large bails on people without means has unintended consequences.

“What happens when you don’t have the money to get out, you sit in jail for at least a couple days if not weeks or months,” she said. “During that time you are very likely to lose your job.”

Burdeen said that can begin a vicious domino effect, as they could lose their home or car, and thus any ability to pay court fines or fees to defend themselves against the charges that put them behind bars in the first place.

Burdeen said the report graded states on their use of pretrial assessment tools to help guide judicial discretion when it came to release conditions.

“Instead of just looking at you and deciding whether or not I can tell that you’re going to come back to court, or stay arrest-free pending trial, I’m using science to help me make a better decision about that,” she said.

Arizona received its relatively high grade because it was using those tools. Byers said, at the felony level, all of the individuals who are arrested and come before a judge during an initial appearance get a risk assessment score.

“The judge doesn’t have to follow that exactly, it’s a tool,” he said. “By doing this systematically, the judge gets that risk score and then can help form whether or not the person should be released.”

The only state that fared better that Arizona was New Jersey, which received an A. The state eliminated bail money, which required the approval of voters to amend the state constitution.

Byers said the road to eliminating bail in Arizona would take a similar long path.

“We would like to drive money out of the system all together as possible, but the Arizona Constitution doesn’t allow you to do that to misdemeanor offenses,” he said.

Moving forward, Arizona courts were searching for a better way to handle non-felony bail cases because there are still some misdemeanors, such as people charged with DUIs and domestic violence, that could pose a risk to the community.

“If you’re a person who has been arrested multiple times and is a risk of flight, but you’re charged with a misdemeanor offense, there isn’t any constitutional way to say ‘We’re going to keep you in jail in a preventative detention status,’ you can only do that with felonies.”

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