Take a grocery store's shopping cart home with you, and you could be fined $2,500 and sentenced to a year in the county jail.
But if a public official lies about how much he received in campaign contributions or defrauds the public by stealing licensing fees and other revenues, he faces a penalty half that size: a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.The injustice is enough to drive shopping cart collectors into the political arena.
It is also enough to prompt a vast restructuring of the 797 Utah laws which carry misdemeanor penalities. The Utah State Judicial Council will submit a bill to the Legislature that changes the classification of dozens of misdemeanors. The bill, if passed, will upgrade more serious crimes - like fraud and deceit by public officials - to class A misdemeanors and downgrade minor offenses - like failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign - to class B or class C misdemeanors.
"We've gone into all the state statutes that carry misdemeanor convictions if
violated and attempted to realign them so there is a stronger link between the seriousness of the offense and the penalty," said Ron Gibson, deputy state court administrator.
That's great news for shopping cart thieves but a blow to sex offenders and dishonest public officials. The bill would upgrade all acts of deceit and fraud by public officials to class A misdemeanors, which carry fines of up to $2,500 and jail sentences of up to a year. The committee is committed to holding public officials to a high standard of conduct, Gibson said.
Presently, most laws regulating the conduct of public officials carry class B designations.
The radical reformation of the state's misdemeanorswas an idea whose time had long since arrived by the time the council formed a committee to study it.
West Valley City Attorney Paul Morris said the committee immediately agreed that "there isn't total rhyme or reason about the way misdemeanors are ranked."
So the committee proposed that misdemeanors that involve personal injury, sex offenses, fraud, misconduct by public officials, more than $250 in damage to property, and are part of a chain of criminal conduct by an individual be given a class A designation.
The council also drafted a bill that will help voters decide if Utah's judges are doing a good job. The council adopted a judge evaluation program last year that calls for an annual evaluation of all judges except municipal and county justices, Gibson said.
Now the council wants to publish the results of those evaluations in voter information pamphlets prior to general elections where voters must decide whether or not to retain their judges.
"The public needs to be aware and informed of past performance of judges," Gibson said.
A group of four bills calls for a widespread reorganization of Utah's courts in an effort to simplify their operations.