Equity and Transparency in Bond
With a commitment to data and transparency, in July of this year, we published our first data story related to bond and its impacts on community safety here. Our new bond practices, which rely on an evaluation of risk and the likelihood that someone will return to court, have led to an increase in personal recognizance (PR) bonds for those who can be safely supervised in the community, and a decrease in the use of cash/surety bonds which are not effective in protecting the community, ensuring return to court, and often penalize those who can be in the community but cannot come up with even a small amount of money. In addition, more high-risk individuals have been held on cash bonds and remained in custody.
While this practice has created more consistent outcomes and is a step forward, it has come at a cost to our commitment to racial equity. The following graph shows that non-white defendants, consisting primarily of Black and Hispanic individuals, are still more likely to be given a monetary condition of release, while white defendants are more likely to be granted a PR bond.In July, we noted that the District Attorney’s Office often makes arguments for bond that are highly likely to match the judge’s decision. Data shows that the district attorney’s recommendation is highly influential when it comes to the setting of a bond. As we have worked to improve our practice, with more experienced attorneys in the bond hearings, more guidance as to relevant factors for monetary bond, and the consistent incorporation of the pretrial risk assessment tool, we have argued for, and the judges have set, more bonds that people are unable to post. The unintended consequence of these bond practices is the persistence of racial and ethnic disparities.
Our role, as prosecutors, cannot be denied in this disparity. Our committed staff works tirelessly to make decisions that serve the best interests of the community at bond hearings, but the District Attorney’s Office acknowledges that the criminal justice system, like all facets of our society, is fraught with systemic racism. With our commitment to data transparency, we now have data that demonstrate disparities. Conversations around race and our role in perpetuating disparities are uncomfortable but necessary for everyone committed to justice and serving their community.
We have an obligation to look inward and make concrete steps toward addressing racial and ethnic disparities. To that end we commit to the following:
- We have begun the process of diagnosing systemic issues with data through our partnership with the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators team and the hiring of an experienced data analyst.
- We will further invest in collecting and analyzing data on bond settings, jail population, and case outcomes to deepen our knowledge, identify solutions, and regularly report our findings to our staff and our community.
- Our office needs to have and use an equity lens in their work. We have engaged the established and respected Equity Project to work with our team as we learn and unlearn together.
- With this equity lens, we will expand the use of PR bonds for individuals who can be safely supervised in the community and lack the ability to pay for their release.
- We will use our position to advocate with stakeholders to improve system-wide bond practices because we all intuitively know that the District Attorney’s Office is not the only institution impacting people’s lives.
This is exactly why we do transparency work; data is the beginning of a conversation inside the District Attorney’s Office and beyond, with everyone who holds power in the system. The data confirms what we already know – systemic racism impacts people’s lives. Our office sees data as an objective catalyst for meaningful change and knows that it is important to be uncomfortable. It’s time to improve how we serve every member of our community.
Community Safety Focused Bond Reform
Since taking office in 2021, District Attorney (DA) Alexis King has changed the bond recommendation strategy from one that relied on a monetary amount to one focused entirely on community safety. The DA's office is committed to ensuring these practices are equitable and promote community safety. We will continue to work with other stakeholders and monitor these data.
The data were collected and provided by Jefferson County Justice Services. The DA's Office worked with Criminal Justice Planner, John Hilgendorf, throughout this process.
What is bond?
Bond is a contract between a person and the court that includes conditions of pretrial release. The conditions may be financial (e.g., payment of cash) or non-financial (e.g., a promise to appear in court or to check in with pretrial services).
What are the types of bond?
At a hearing to impose bond, the prosecutor’s role is to provide a recommendation to the court. In the First Judicial District, the court imposes:
- Personal recognizance (PR) bond is a signature bond that often has an unsecured monetary condition, and payment is not required as long as the defendant appears at all future court dates. The defendant’s signature acts as the promise to appear in court.
- Surety bond is a monetary bond posted through the service of a state licensed bondsman of the defendant’s choosing. The bondsman may require a co-signer and/or collateral to secure the bond.
- Cash bond is also a monetary bond that requires the defendant, or another person, to pay in cash the full amount of the bond in order to be released from custody.
In addition, the court may order conditions of bond such as pretrial supervision, monitored sobriety, GPS monitoring, etc. If a defendant is unable to post a monetary bond, he or she will remain in custody until their criminal case is resolved.
A pretrial system that relies on monetary bonds creates significant disparity. Defendants that lack the financial resources to pay bond may face disruptions due to their pretrial detention, such as job loss, housing instability, and health risk. Individuals detained pretrial are more likely to take a plea deal to get out of custody, and they receive longer sentences. Wealthier defendants have an increased chance of going free and never experiencing a life disruption because they have the means to pay a monetary bond. Most importantly, reliance on a monetary amount of bond does not increase the safety of victims.
To rectify this disparity, DA King implemented an evidence-based bond initiative intended to assess risk to the community rather than an ability to pay a monetary amount of bond. If a defendant presents as a community safety risk and no condition of release can reasonably mitigate the risk, the prosecutor will seek a high cash only bond. If the community safety risk is minimal or can be mitigated with conditions of bond, the prosecutor will seek release of the defendant on a PR bond with or without conditions.
As a commitment to ensuring recommendations that focus on community safety, DA King assigned some of the office’s most experienced prosecutors to appear at the bond hearings. In making decisions about whether pretrial detention is necessary, the prosecutor balances guidelines, data from pretrial services including the results of the risk assessment tool, victim input, and their own professional discretion to make informed recommendations about release in each case.
What do the data tell us?
The prosecutor’s recommendation appears to be highly influential in the court’s decision to grant PR. When the prosecutor requests PR, the court orders it 88% of the time. However, when the prosecutor believes there is a safety concern and requests a cash only bond, the court is less likely to impose a cash bond and instead usually opts for a surety bond that allows a defendant to pay a small percentage to a bondsman.
Prosecutors ask for a cash only bond for defendants charged with more serious felony crimes that implicate community safety. This reflects our commitment to keeping the community safe. However, on the majority of the misdemeanor cases and many low-level felonies, prosecutors requested personal recognizance (PR).
Our data show that the new policy has successfully maintained community safety. More than 90% of individuals released on PR bonds have not been re-arrested. Further, this initiative has had little negative impact on whether individuals make it to their court appearances on felony cases, i.e., court appearance rates have remained high (approximately 7% of felony cases fail to appear at their first two hearings).
The DA's office is committed to ensuring these practices are equitable and promote community safety. We will continue to monitor these data.
Serving Victims of Crime
Our office prioritizes vulnerable populations, including children, at-risk adults, and victims of domestic violence. Victim Witness Specialists work closely with victims within the Special Victims Unit, which prosecutes felony cases involving child or elder victims. In 2021 the Victim Witness Unit served a total of 2,741 individuals who were victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, and child sexual or physical abuse. Victims of domestic violence make up 91% of the victims served.
“Thank you to the specialist for her kindness and communication. Thank you to the DA and all for your work on getting justice and a guilty plea. This means so much to us and is huge in the recovery process and healing for my boys.”
VRA Crime Trends
In 1992, Colorado voters amended the state Constitution to include the Victim Rights Amendment. The enabling legislation became the Victim Rights Act (VRA), which outlines the rights of victims, the responsibilities of criminal justice agencies, and the crimes that are covered by the VRA (“VRA crimes”). The Colorado Constitution states that any person who is a victim of a criminal act shall have the right to be heard when relevant, informed, and present at all critical stages of the criminal justice process.
Felonies, including violent felonies, have remained steady since 2018 (Charging and Filing), but the number of felony VRA cases and victims that we serve increased from 2017 to 2018 and remains relatively high. The increase is in part due to legislative additions to VRA crimes, and a new crime being added to make strangulation a felony 2nd degree assault. Strangulation is common in domestic violence crimes