Every couple of years, a proposal to create a statewide district attorney system is put forward in Utah. The idea has yet to be adopted, but it keeps coming back because it simply makes good sense.
The existing system of county attorneys - one for each of the state's 29 counties - has drawbacks, particularly in rural areas.For example, some 20 of Utah's 29 county attorneys are in less-populated areas and serve only part-time. They handle civil and criminal cases in addition to their private practices.
According to State Attorney General Paul Van Dam, trying to juggle these roles "guarantees" many potential conflicts of interest. Yet many areas cannot afford full-time county attorneys or do not have the case loads for such a job.
In addition, the experience and qualifications of some part-time county attorneys may fall short of what is required in major or unusual cases that might crop up in their jurisdictions.
So why not set up state districts where prosecuting attorneys can be assigned as needed?
However, rural officials have been particularly reluctant to let go of any of their local power and have consistently opposed switching to a district attorney system.
The latest proposal - endorsed this past week by the Statewide Association of Prosecutors during a meeting in St. George - seeks to establish a system of eight elected district attorneys. A number of sub-districts could be set up on the basis of population, case load, or some other agreed-upon formula.
This kind of system would provide a centralized administration yet would permit more flexibility by allowing Utah officials to concentrate resources anywhere in the state they might be needed. It also would raise the level of professionalism and experience in prosecutions.
At the Association of Prosecutors meeting, the vote in favor of a district attorney system was opposed on a voice vote by only about five prosecutors from sparsely-populated areas. This represents a distinct improvement in support for such a system - better than any in recent years.
The latest district attorney plan may have garnered more rural support by offering to let counties keep local control over prosecution decisions. Rural areas also were offered a major voice on a proposed council that would supervise the budget for the district attorney system.
Under the plan, the budget panel would be made up of four urban district attorneys, six rural district attorneys and the state attorney general. The system would cost an estimated $12 million to $15 million a year and the source of that money remains a problem.
The Associated of Prosecutors wants the upcoming 1991 Legislature to underwrite a yearlong independent study of a district attorney system, including the financing and other details.
Such a study ought to be adopted. Utah needs to update its prosecution system, make it more effective and concentrate its legal resources where they are most needed and would do the most good.