Most people familiar with Utah's county attorney system agree that it should be replaced with a district attorney arrangement. But there have been too many conflicts and delays over the details.
This should not be a bureaucratic turf struggle. It is a serious situation that affects the quality of criminal prosecutions in many parts of Utah - in a way that hurts society.Fortunately, a consensus seems to be emerging and proposed changes in the law may be ready for the next Legislature.
County attorneys are just what the name says, people who are elected under political party labels to serve a particular county and are paid by that county. In some rural areas, the job is a part-time one, often filled by an inexperienced lawyer or one with little background in prosecuting certain serious crimes.
District attorneys, on the other hand, would be chosen on a non-partisan basis in districts that might roughly mirror the district courts. They would be paid by the state and would serve as experienced state prosecutors, perhaps specializing in certain kinds of cases.
There appear to be many advantages in terms of more professionalism, fewer political drawbacks and more experienced prosecutors.
The need is clearly there. Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom, long an advocate of a district attorney system, says his office gets repeated requests to send experienced prosecutors to rural counties to help with murder cases or other complex trials. Yet he cannot supply what they ask.
The state attorney general's office does loan a prosecutor to rural areas from from time to time, but the attorney general is overloaded with his own problems and cannot respond to all the needs.
Yocom pleaded with legislators this week to support measures forming a non-partisan district attorney system. In response, members of the Judicial Interim Committee voted to form a task force to evaluate the merits and expense of such a system.
The task force will be plowing old ground. For two years, 1986 and '87, a task force of prosecutors studied the issue and agreed on the need for change to a district attorney system. Yet there was a breakdown between urban and rural prosecutors over the size and number of districts, as well as some other issues.
Inability to resolve this conflict ended any chance of change in the 1988 Legislature. A bill was introduced in the 1989 Legislature, but it arrived late and was eventually withdrawn for further study.
Most disagreements between prosecutors have been ironed out, except for the number of districts. Rural officials want 23 districts, nearly one per county. Urban officials prefer eight or 10 roughly equal districts.
If Utah is to have an effective statewide district attorney system, with top-notch professionalism, the smaller number of districts makes more sense. It would be more efficient and cost less.
Legislators should study the problem from that perspective, rather than trying to salvage the one-district-per-county approach.