Third District judges are accusing Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom of manipulating the judicial system in order to raise revenue for the county and are warning him stop it.
Representing 14 district judges, Presiding Judge Scott Daniels says in a letter to Yocom, "As judges and public attorneys, we should be dedicated to the efficient administration of justice. No judge should impose a fine just to raise revenue for the county or for the state, and we believe that no prosecutor should seek a fine only for that same purpose."Yocum's practices, detailed in a March 6 Deseret News story, have been going on since last November.
In a Deseret News interview Monday, Yocom admitted he has advised his prosecutors to take plea bargains to the district court instead of the circuit court to increase county revenues by at least $20,000 a month, he estimates.
Fines from District Court go into county coffers because the counties administer those courts. Circuit court fines go to the state, which administers those courts.
His reason: The county not the state pays for law enforcement and for the prosecution of criminals. So the county not the state should get the revenue.
He believes taxpayers, if asked, would support his view.
"The state of Utah doesn't contribute one cent to the cost of apprehending and prosecuting criminals in Salt Lake County. It's appropriate to have the revenue from the criminal fines going to the governmental agency that is providing the services to protect the public."
The county attorney has instructed his prosecutors to take a criminal defendant charged with a felony, generally his first offense, to district court to enter his plea. For instance, if someone is charged with felony theft for shoplifting over $250 and the case is pleaded down to a Class A misdemeanor, the judge accepting the plea assesses a fine or community service in lieu of jail time.
In the past, the procedure has been that a circuit judge would accept a misdemeanor plea bargain instead of a district judge.
Under Yocom's administration, however, the case then is bound over to district court where a plea is entered during another court hearing.
Fines accompanying misdemeanor guilty pleas in circuit court go into the state coffers while district court fines are transferred into the county till.
Besides being philosophically opposed to manipulating justice, the judges are concerned about the increased costs to taxpayers, litigants and government services because of additional court hearings.
In their letter, the judges outline the additional expense of Yocom's com's plea-bargain policy, in their view:
The number of hearings is needlessly increased, requiring citizens to appear and pay additional fees for their attorneys.
Attorneys from the public defender's office and the Salt Lake County attorney's office are already working under a heavy workload. The additional work requires more lawyers "and taxpayers pay for these lawyers."
The county clerk's office has been inundated with misdemeanor cases that normally remain in circuit court. Caseload has increased from 40 cases to nearly 70 cases bound over from circuit court to district court.
"The judges are willing to do what is necessary to properly administer justice. However, the district judges are greatly concerned about the economics of the administration of justice and its impact on the citizens," the judges write.
Yocom counters their accusations, saying, "We're not talking about violent offenders who are going to take up time in court. They walk in and say they are guilty."
The additional time it may cost is minimal compared with the possible revenue to be derived by the county that would otherwise "be lost to the state," he said.
When Yocom's budget was cut by $500,000, Salt Lake County commissioners advised him to seek revenue-producing programs.
"This is one way to make the criminal offender pay back the system for prosecuting him.
"It's not manipulating justice, it's just being realistic where the revenues should go."