SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Handpicked out of 27 prosecuting offices from across the country, the Salt Lake County District Attorney Office is opening its cases back up for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Yale Law School, and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for the Elevating Trust and Legitimacy for Prosecutors Project.
In August, ABC4 first reported the state’s only D.A. Office, led by District Attorney Sim Gill, will go under a 15-month probe where cases will be looked at and discussed openly.
Salt Lake County has the perfect recipe for dealing with some of the nation’s biggest issues including the summer Demonstrations of 2020, the shutdown of courts and the access to justice, rising violence rates, and the mixed perceptions of police officers and prosecutors.
“This is all being done by private money,” says Association of Prosecuting Attorneys President and CEO David LaBahn. “This is private money, this is a foundation looking at it saying how can we do better in justice.”
LaBahn is heading up the project which is looking at cases from 2018-23.
“We don’t want to do a pilot project. We don’t want to invest our time, our resources, – and I’ve got tremendous partners working with us – on an office that people can then discount and say, ‘Oh, that’s all great, but it would never work in my office.’ And you’re in a perfect place here,” he says. “Prosecutors get it. It’s courageous on the part of Sim or by D.A. Gill to say, ‘Come in and look and see where it is at.'”
Early findings already show crushing caseloads on a stretched prosecuting office. LaBahn believes it’s partially due to the judicial branch of the government being shut down during the pandemic.
“Because of that, you’ve had no access to justice,” he says. “You didn’t see these state agencies saying, ‘Oh it’s COVID, we are shut down.’ Why is it the third co-equal branch of government has been flat shut down? So what has that done? Without the access to justice, all you’ve done is back up cases.”
The project will look at internal and external operations focusing on utilizing current resources wisely.
“We will get into microscopic, or we will give a little bit of a menu of opportunities because I think sometimes it is the small fixes that you can operate with that will expand out,” he adds.
“Our premise has always been you can not find solutions if you’re not willing to look at yourself critically, and looking at yourself critically is the first step to the kind of reforms that we want to have,” District Attorney Gill tells ABC4.
Gill is credited with helping create the first conviction integrity unit, mental health court, veterans court, restorative and therapeutic justice, and hate crime legislation.
“I’ve spent 20 years of my life advocating for criminal justice reform, but never have I said that we are going to compromise on public safety,” he says. “So, we want to focus on the person who is the violent criminal, and by safeguarding our resources then we can more directly impact that aspect of it rather than other aspects where we are wasting resources on as well. So, this is about doing smart prosecution, evidence-based prosecution, and evidence-based solutions rather than emotional and knee-jerk reactions.”
Moving forward, LaBahn says the project will look at cases dealing with cash bail, drug addictions, mental health, and violent crimes. And what they find can create some big systemic changes if adopted by local municipalities across the nation.