Pay for prosecutors in the Utah Attorney General's Office is so unsatisfactory that the office has a turnover rate of 20 percent a year and has difficulty attracting experienced, skilled people. That can only hurt the system of justice in the state.
A method of improving the pay problem - without dipping into general state funds - has been proposed by Gov. Norm Bangerter. He would expand the existing 25 percent state surcharge on criminal fines by an unstated amount. The state could use the money to finance pay raises for prosecutors, as well as more money to compensate county jails for holding state prisoners, plus more funds for witness and juror fees.The existing surcharge was added several years ago as a way of paying for the Crime Victims Reparation Fund. Money going into the fund compensates crime victims and also is used to train police, emergency medical technicians, and prosecutors. The surcharge raised $3.8 million last year and the fund now has a balance of $4.3 million.
One of the complaints against the fund is that it is slow paying out any reparations to victims. Only $639,000 has been disbursed so far. While the maximum payment is $25,000, the average only comes to $2,600.
The surcharge idea is inviting because it puts the burden on the very people who cause criminal justice problems. But care must be taken not to hike the surcharge so high that it makes fines unreasonable and out of proportion to the offense.
In addition, the surcharge idea must not be expanded to the point that it is used to finance every interest in the justice system that cannot be met from general tax funds.
Already, some legislators are talking about dividing the Reparation Fund in new and different ways, taking a portion of the money and putting it into the public safety fund.
The surcharge was added in the first place to meet a specific need - reparation for crime victims. Let's not use a tight budget as an excuse to turn it into a free-for-all source of state funding.