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JUSTICE DELAYED: MANY U.S. INMATES STILL AWAITING TRIAL

by Contributor

43 percent of Utah inmates are still awaiting trial. Most of them will spend more time waiting for their trial than their actual sentence. But a bail service can help these inmates find justice.

(May 21, 2019) — Utah’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the world. At a price of 439 per 100,000, the state has a higher incarceration rate than the UK, Canada, France, and Italy. However, close to half of these inmates either have ongoing trials or are still awaiting their court dates — always presumed innocent, but languishing in jail.

Avoidable Incarcerations

Almost 70 percent of Utah inmates awaiting trial are jailed for substance abuse or some form of misdemeanor. They could have avoided incarceration if they paid the bond set by the judge or used the services of a bail bondsman. However, most of these inmates are homeless and penniless. Whatever bail the judge sets would almost be impossible to meet even if it’s just the 10 percent required by Utah bail bondsmen services. Hence, Utah jails are filled with misdemeanor cases, many of whom will spend more time in jail waiting for their trial than the actual sentence they’ll receive if found guilty. This grim reality has forced many defendants, regardless of their guilt or innocence, to accept plea deals and serve a shorter sentence rather than wait in jail for their trial to start.

The shock of a prison environment is sometimes too heavy to bear. Inmates still awaiting trial accounted for 75 percent of deaths in both Davis and Weber county jails, and 1 in 4 deaths was related to substance abuse withdrawal. Suicides and substance abuse-related conditions are two of the leading causes of death in Utah prisons, and prison authorities do not have enough human resources or training to prevent them. Lawmakers have drafted a bill that would seek to prevent suicide and drug deaths by requiring counties to report on their assessment and treatment of inmates with mental health or substance abuse issues. More importantly, by creating tax credit incentives, the bill gives mental health practitioners a practical reason to work in the county and federal prisons.

Addressing the Problem

The significant number of unconvicted inmates in the prison systems is a problem that affects the whole nation. Changes were promised when President Trump signed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill, but these changes will take a little time to come to fruition. Local governments must take steps to enable non-violent offenders to take alternative avenues for reform that don’t involve jail time. They also should build the infrastructure needed to deal with inmates with mental issues and substance abuse problems.

Judges have also been given more information regarding defendants as well as more leeway in setting bail amounts or pretrial release conditions. Though these changes are promising, local governments need time to set up the necessary systems, hire the required personnel, and build the necessary infrastructure.

Unnecessary and avoidable incarcerations are a sad reflection of a flawed system coping with a society plagued with mental health issues and flooded with illegal drugs. Reforming the prison system is not enough. Improving the justice system is not enough. The government must deal with the underlying source of the nation’s mental health and substance abuse epidemic.

 

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