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Getting Smart About Justice in Utah

Utah’s new Campaign for Smart Justice is off to a fast start

Where do you start transforming the criminal justice system in Utah? You start with the prosecutor, the most powerful actor in the room.

The prosecutor decides which charges to file, if plea deals are offered, and which arguments to make at bond hearings. The prosecutor brings the power of the state, which includes law enforcement, against an individual and can deprive that individual of life, liberty or property. These County Attorneys (also called District Attorneys) determine criminal justice policy within the county office and also can influence policy at the state level. 

That’s why one of the first goals of the Campaign for Smart Justice (CSJ) in Utah is to focus attention on the upcoming elections for the top elected prosecutor in each county. Launched in January 2018, Utah’s CSJ is focused on combating mass incarceration and racial disparities in Utah’s criminal justice system through prosecutorial and parole reform. This new campaign is led by Jason Groth (see profile, below).

Electing Prosecutors

In 2018, Utah voters will have the opportunity to transform criminal justice in their community by electing reform-minded prosecutors. Although only nine primary elections for County Attorney will be contested in Utah, those elections will impact the state’s most populous counties, including Salt Lake, Utah, and Davis. 

The campaign’s goal is to educate residents in these counties about criminal justice reform and pave the way to elect prosecutors who will reduce incarcerations rates, increase rehabilitation services, and improve accountability for their own office.

 To help voters make sense of county prosecutor candidates, Utah’s CSJ will submit questionnaires to each candidate to gather their positions on criminal justice reform issues. The campaign will also organize public forums so that candidates can speak openly with voters and clarify their positions on criminal justice reform. 

Fixing Parole

Although prosecutors represent the first stage in the criminal justice system, the last stage is just as important: the decisions made by the Board of Pardons and Parole. Utah’s CSJ will be tackling this element of the criminal justice system as well. 

The parole board determines when an incarcerated person may have a parole hearing and whether a person will be released from prison. In Utah, the parole board uses a guideline to make these determinations, but it may deviate from the guidelines on a case-by-case basis. This means that people with the same sentences for the same crimes can have different outcomes, including different lengths of incarceration.

Parole board decisions in Utah are final and cannot be appealed. Additionally, lawyers or other advocates for a parolee can only appear in particular circumstances. This limits a person’s ability to represent themselves at a hearing and limits their ability to challenge a seemingly unjust or inconsistent decision.

Fair parole hearings and consistent decisions are essential to respect a person’s rights and create successful outcomes for re-entry into the community. Utah’s CSJ will be working with the parole board and other stakeholders to advocate for fair, evidence-based parole guidelines. The campaign will also be increasing incarcerated persons’ access to resources before a parole hearing to ensure fair and just hearings.

Keep following Utah’s Campaign for Smart Justice (see CSJ’s social media feeds below) to learn about its progress on upcoming county attorney elections and reforming the parole and pardon system. ◄

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This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2018 Spring Newsletter >>

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