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Utah hasn't taken steps known to save courts time and money and ensure public safety when it decides which inmates are put in jail and which remain free while awaiting trial, according to a new audit presented to legislators Thursday.
The audit is the second in two years to highlight lapses in the pretrial system that, if improved, could save money and entice suspected criminals who are released from custody to return to court and face charges.
When various aspects of the pretrial system are not efficient, the audit says, it can lead to people charged with serious crimes to skip bail. There is plenty of room for improvement, the audit found, as about 1 in 4 defendants misses court appearances.
"There isn't a great deal of accountability in the current forfeiture process," said Anndrea Parrish, a lead auditor in the Utah Legislative Auditor General's Office, who supervised the report.
In one case, Jose Arellano was facing multiple felony child-rape charges in Salt Lake County. He used a local bail bond company to pay a $250,000 bail while awaiting trial. After attending several court hearings, Arellano didn't show up to a November 2015 hearing. In June, the judge ordered a bond forfeiture but gave the bond company a two-month extension to find Arellano and bring him to court.
After various court delays and extensions, the court set a hearing for November 2016, which Arellano also missed, court records show. As of Jan. 10, Arellano was still out on bond.
Arellano's attorney didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the case. The company that assured his bond, Ace Bail Bonds, had its license suspended last week, according to the Utah Insurance Department. The company didn't respond to requests for comment.
Insurance Department documents show the suspension stems from the bail bond forfeiture of two other clients.
The state conducted the audit because it is "looking for opportunities to make bondsmen more accountable," Parrish said.
Dominic Sanone, owner of Dewey's Bail Bonds in Salt Lake City, said the report highlights only the bad actors in the business and that his company is effective at ensuring defendants face charges in court.
His company tracked the number of clients who failed to appear in court from 2015 to 2016. His numbers are similar to what the state found. Twenty-two percent of his clients missed a court appearance.
But he said his company is effective at contacting defendants who miss a court appearance and making sure they either appear at a rescheduled hearing or, if needed, tracking them down and forcing them to appear. He said the company had to arrest just 2 percent of its clients in that time frame.
Bondsmen charge defendants 10 percent of their bail amount and ensure the court the defendant will show up at hearings. If a client flees and isn't found, commercial bondsmen are on the line for the full amount of the defendant's bail.
The last thing a bail bond company wants is to fork over the full bond a defendant owes, Sanone said.
The audit also said that most counties aren't collecting information that could save tax dollars by allowing defendants to head home if they're not considered a threat to the community while they await trial.
Other counties and states that track metrics have saved money by releasing low-risk defendants while they await trial.
"The idea behind risk assessment is you're able to get a probability for each defendant over the likelihood that they will miss court or commit new crimes," Parrish said.
The audit also found that if Utah was serious about getting offenders to show up to court, they could adopt a system that notifies defendants before they are due in court. When Colorado put that in place, it saved money and defendants were less likely to miss a court hearing.
Arizona courts cut in half the rate at which defendants were missing court appearances by adopting a notification system. Before that, 1 of every 4 defendants missed their court appearance in Arizona. Now it's closer to 1 in 10.
Although a 2015 Utah report recommended the state court's adopt a reminder system, the state still hasn't put one in place, the audit found.
After discussing the audit Thursday, legislators on the Audit Subcommittee sent the findings to an interim committee.