“Let us know a little more before we act.”
— Sherlock Holmes
To have such an attitude toward any part of the criminal justice system would seem, well, elementary.
But the court system in Utah has been spinning its judicial wheels for a long time now, before finally launching a new system that is designed to give judges more information about which of the freshly arrested defendants brought before them need to be locked up pending trial, and which ones don’t.
The delay was not really the fault of the judiciary. It was an act of — perhaps excessive — deference to some members of the Utah Legislature who had raised objections to the change but then never did anything about it.
In the past, judges had little or nothing to go on beyond a brief statement from the arresting officer. That was something, but not enough to make a proper judgment as to which defendant was a serious risk to commit more crimes — or to just run away — and which ones were more likely to behave themselves and return as ordered for future court dates.
The new system uses a database to bring up specific information about the defendant’s background, whether they’ve ever been arrested before, if they skipped bail or committed more, or violent, crimes. Or not.
Clearly, that gives a judge a much better opportunity to make the best decision possible. That ability is important for many reasons, and not just the obvious concern that a dangerous criminal might be on the streets.
To begin with, everyone who has been accused of a crime is, in the eyes of the law, innocent until proven guilty. To order them to remain in jail awaiting trial, or to require a bond that may be beyond the reach of many lower-income people, when the facts do not justify such a move is not in keeping with that basic principle of American justice.
Besides, people in jail when they really don’t have to be there cost taxpayers too much money. And it puts the defendants in an often undeserved position of losing their jobs, leaving their children uncared for or otherwise messing up their lives in ways they don’t deserve.
People treated in such a way are actually more likely to turn to an ongoing life of crime, when the whole point of the criminal justice system is to make such an outcome less likely.
Lawmakers earlier made some noises about how they should have been consulted about the plan and there was talk of some legislation to head it off. But once the whole plan was explained to them, that urge apparently went away.
The remaining static is coming from bail bondsmen who — understandably, from their point of view — worry that more defendants will be freed without having to avail themselves of those services. But if the system is better, for judges, defendants, taxpayers and the general public, the concern of one small industry should not have a veto.
Provide the information, and let the judges judge.