Pushback over Salt Lake County court changes

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Could changes to Salt Lake County courts put an extra burden on witnesses, victims, defendants and police officers could testify? Dozens of government officials say it will and now they are trying to put a stop to it.

Jenn Oxborrow, Executive Director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, says the way cases are currently assigned in Salt Lake County, based on geography, is in the best interest of a survivor.

“I don’t have to run around to a bunch of different court houses, I don’t have to drive a great distance to get there, I’m familiar with the setting where my case was opened and I have connections and support teams there,” Oxborrow explained.

She says the changes announced by Utah Court officials, to assign the location of cases at random, between the Matheson Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City and the Third District Court in West Jordan, could already make a challenging process even more discouraging for survivors.

“The more barriers we create for survivors the harder it is for them to engage in a situation that is already difficult,” Oxborrow told ABC4 News.

Government officials ranging from prosecutors, police chiefs, public defenders, mayors and city council members signed a letter asking Judge Kouris and Judge Scott to reconsider.

“This decision in a unilateral way has huge collateral consequences,” said Sim Gill.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney says this change would create an issue of access to courts and create a burden for witnesses, victims, defendants, and police officers.

“It’s easy to say, well they can jump on TRAX. But if you are a person who is a single parent, a victim of a crime, and you have to go from Rose Park to West Jordan, it’s a half a day, full day thing,” said Gill. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that when I have either a witness or a victim who is a single mom and she’s trying to find coverage for her children, is being told to go to a different jurisdiction and she doesn’t have access to a car like you and I may, that is a hardship.”

“Do I want to put a burden on a victim? Do I want to put a burden on a citizen witness? Do I want to put a burden on a defendant? Do I want to put a burden on a local law enforcement agency, which is already strapped for resources because they want to be able to come to court and be back and address public safety issues in their community? Do I want to burden potential tax increases for those communities which may have to hire additional officers and pay them overtime?” the District Attorney rhetorically asked.

Mark Kouris, Presiding Judge, Third Judicial District, sent ABC4 News the following statement regarding Third District Court Filing and Redistribution:

As judges, we have a responsibility to timely and justly resolve matters that are brought before us, whether those matters are criminal or civil. Arriving at a just result requires each judge to take the time necessary to carefully weigh the merits of the matter, the arguments presented, and to ensure that the law is fairly and consistently applied. In this process, each party must have a voice and be respectfully heard.

Judges are unable to fulfill this responsibility when caseloads are too large. There is no question that Third District requires additional judges to meet the needs of its citizens. Until additional
judges are approved, however, we are seeking to manage the existing caseloads in such a way as to ensure, to the best of our ability, that each matter is given due consideration.

To do so, it is critical that we immediately address the criminal caseloads in West Jordan, which are significantly larger than in Salt Lake. These large calendars force judges to spend substantially less time with each case and defendant. This not only compromises procedural fairness but results in lower compliance with the judge’s orders and higher recidivism rates for defendants. It also places a significant strain on the front-line prosecutors, legal defenders, bailiffs, and other court personnel who are attempting to efficiently and effectively manage over 140+ cases on a single law and motion calendar.

For the past two years, we have been seeking ways to address the West Jordan criminal caseloads. We added a new criminal calendar in 2019 and will add an additional criminal calendar in 2020. The addition of two new judges and two new criminal calendars, however, does not solve the problem. We have met with representatives of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, and Salt Lake County jail transport to solicit their input and ask for data regarding the impact the change might have on them. We also solicited input from West Jordan and Salt Lake security and court personnel. All of their input has been carefully considered. As of this date, we have not been provided with any data.

After studying their model, the Third District has decided to adopt the criminal case assignment procedure that has been working effectively in Fourth District for the past five years. Effective February 1, 2020, all Salt Lake County criminal cases will be electronically filed in Salt Lake and then randomly assigned to judges in the Salt Lake and West Jordan courthouses. Unlike in the Fourth District, where cases are distributed to three different courthouses that are farther apart, the cases in Third District will be distributed between two courthouses that are only 13 miles apart. Based upon discussions with Fourth District, they have not experienced negative impacts on access to justice and public safety. Finally, the Third District successfully employs this same procedure for civil and domestic cases.

In making this decision, we are mindful of the impact it may have on victims, police officers, defendants, and other participants. We also recognize the difficulty of assessing the impact on victims and defendants because criminal cases are not filed based on where the victim or defendant lives. They are typically filed based on where the crime occurred. For example, if victim lives in the Avenues but is assaulted during a Real soccer game by a defendant who lives in Tooele County, the case is filed in West Jordan without regard to where the victim or the defendant lives. We also considered the fact that all of a defendant’s criminal cases are usually consolidated before the judge assigned to the first case filed. Consequently, a West Jordan judge may have a defendant with cases involving victims, witnesses, and police officers from all over the valley. The courts have been, and will continue to, track failure to appear rates of defendants.

Importantly, we have not been provided with any data showing that this change will result in an increased burden on police officers or result in them spending more time traveling to court. If there is such data, we welcome the opportunity to consider it.

We also understand there may be concerns about a change from how things were done when the West Jordan courthouse was built over 15 years ago, but we cannot be guided by tradition or anecdote or the notion that we ought to simply keep doing what we have always been doing. We must rely on facts and data and evidence. Since the West Jordan courthouse was built, we have seen TRAX connecting the north and south ends of the valley, electronic filing and telephonic hearings that do not require attorneys or parties to physically appear at a courthouse, electronic submission of search warrants that eliminates the need for officers to come to the courthouse to have them reviewed by a judge, and the placing of homeless shelters throughout Salt Lake County. As Salt Lake valley’s population and demographics continue to shift and change with the building of new homes in the south end of the valley and new apartment complexes downtown, this change enables us to level caseloads to provide equal access to justice.

We appreciate the opportunity to continue to work with stakeholders to address these important issues and to provide the highest possible service to all who enter the Salt Lake and West Jordan courthouses.

“They’re talking about whether one judge has more caseload than another judge or one jurisdiction is being pressed because of the demographic shift. You address that by trying to equalize that in the least disruptive way that you can,” said Gill in response.

“One of the alternatives we proposed is that if there is some inequity, either we finish out the courtrooms in West Jordan, because that was built with an expansion in mind, and staff it with the right kind of number of judges there, so you can have that distribution, or you take the jurisdictions which are in the center, like Murray or Cottonwood Heights, and if there is a case disparity, you take some cases and move them into one side, which is the Salt Lake division or to West Jordan if there’s another division there,” the District Attorney told ABC4’s Brittany Johnson.

“That courthouse was built there and the legislature funded it based on a geographic expansion. That was the original argument. So now to come later on to say well, nevermind, we spent all that money, that’s really not the matter. It is not going to sit well with people.”

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