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Salt Lake County's criminal justice initiative resolving nearly 40 percent of cases within 30 days, review says

Published: Tuesday, March 19 2013 9:31 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — By conservative estimates, a Salt Lake County initiative intended to create a more effective and efficient criminal justice system is resolving 38 percent of certain felony and class A misdemeanor offenses within 30 days, a new evaluation shows.

A review of the county's Early Case Resolution initiative by University of Utah researchers suggests benefits to all partners in the process, including criminal defendants who experience consequences for their offenses sooner and can benefit from being placed in appropriate treatment programs sooner.

"Overall, the criminal justice community appears to agree that ECR has sped up the court and that expedited processing is, in general, a benefit to the entire system," researchers wrote.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the evaluation, reported recently to the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, shows early successes and continued promise of the approach. Many cases that lingered 120-180 days are now being resolved in month, he said.

"What we know is, early case resolution works. It is a program that is beneficial to defendants and is beneficial to the criminal justice system. It is beneficial to the jail and it is beneficial to our taxpayers. This is a model, for the first time, that is giving us an opportunity to make significant and meaningful inroads into the criminal justice system," Gill said.

One goal of ECR is to efficiently handle certain types of felony and class A misdemeanor cases such as drug and property offenses. The thinking is, bringing those types of cases to a fast conclusion relieves prosecutors' and legal defenders' resources for cases that require more time and attention.

Patrick Anderson, director of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, said early on, his office had concerns whether increasing the speed at which cases were resolved would have negative consequences for clients.

Eight experienced Legal Defender attorneys have been assigned to ECR cases, which helps the office quickly identify cases that require additional resources if a police search or stop raises constitutional concerns, as well as those that can be more readily resolved. 

"We think we're getting good resolutions for our clients. They're getting them sooner, and generally it's the same resolution (than before), and they're appropriate resolutions for our clients and they're happier," Anderson said.

When appropriate cases — usually drug or property offenses — are handled in an expedited manner, clients need to come to court one or two times, compared with five or six hearings in the past.

Another benefit of early case resolution has been fewer warrants issued for their arrests or additional charges for failing to appear, Anderson said.

"We get more people engaged in the process. We get them to court sooner so we don't lose as many people through the back door," Anderson said.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said the county is still evaluating the impact to the jail, but "what we do know, there has been a drop in our overcrowding releases."

Jail officials are continuing to analyze the university report and its own data to determine connections.

"What the result will be, hopefully, is decreased length of stay," Winder said, noting a growing body of criminal justice research supports that long jail terms do not necessarily result in lower rates of recidivism.

Like other ERC partners, Winder said he wants available jail resources to be used as efficiently and effectively as possible.

"Say I have a restaurant and I have 50 seats. If can roll those tables three times a night, I can serve 150 people. But maybe someone sits a while and has beverages, the less I can use that table. Maybe I only get 100 people through. The exact same phenomena occurs in the jail," he said.

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