In arguments before the Utah Supreme Court Tuesday, an attorney for a Utah State Prison inmate challenged the Pardon Board's practice of not allowing prisoners to see records on themselves the board uses to determine how long a prisoner stays in prison.
Craig S. Cook, attorney for James C. Foote, suggested to the court that prisoners should not be incarcerated for periods beyond those advocated by the state's sentencing guidelines without being given due process."I'm asking for a system of due process from the moment a prisoner is notified of a hearing (with the Pardons Board) right up until he walks out the door afterward," Cook said. This due process should include being privy to information the board uses in extending a sentence, he suggested.
Tuesday's arguments were brief and one-sided. Utah Assistant Attorney General Dane Nolan, who represented the state in the case, was ill Tuesday morning and asked for the arguments to be rescheduled. The Supreme Court decided to proceed and hear the inmate's case without Nolan present.
A Utah judge sentenced Foote to prison in 1985 after Foote pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse of a child. Both counts stemmed from one incident: Foote touched the breasts and genitals of a 6-year-old girl when he lifted her into a pickup truck, Cook said.
A trial on the case resulted in a hung jury. Foote subsequently pleaded guilty to the two counts and was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison. Foote, an engineer working at the University of Utah, did not have a previous criminal record, Cook said.
State sentencing guidelines used by the courts suggested a two-year sentence for a prisoner guilty of Foote's crimes with his lack of criminal history, Cook said. However, the Pardons Board has kept Foote in prison for nearly six years, repeatedly denying him parole even though prison officials call him a model prisoner.
Foote completed sex-therapy counseling and teaches engineering classes at the prison, Cook said.
During Foote's three meetings before the Pardon Board, board members have brought up allegations that Foote abused other children in his neighborhood. The allegations were not made before Foote's incarceration and did not show up in the presentence report, Cook said. The board cites such allegations as the reason for its refusal to parole Foote.
The board will not allow Foote to know the source or specifics of the allegations. The board denied Foote and his attorney access to most of his file, Cook told the court. He contends that because the mother of the little girl Foote abused used to be a receptionist for the Pardons Board and still works in the same building, the board may have been prejudiced against Foote.
The justices asked Cook to specify the due process he believes prisoners should be given. Cook suggested that besides letting prisoners see their files, the state should give prisoners an opportunity to refute information in their files. He further suggested the Pardons Board be required to draft criteria for evaluating a prisoner and determining his length of incarceration.
"A prisoner's very life and liberty are at stake," Cook said. "He should at least know what is expected of him so he can be released from prison."
The board currently has no defined criteria, he said.
The court should also consider requiring the Pardons Board to investigate the truth of allegations made against a prisoner before using those allegations to extend that prisoners' term, Cook said.