SALT LAKE CITY — By conservative estimates, a Salt Lake County initiative intended to create a more effective and efficient criminal justice system is resolving 38 percent of certain felony and class A misdemeanor offenses within 30 days, a new evaluation shows.

A review of the county's Early Case Resolution initiative by University of Utah researchers suggests benefits to all partners in the process, including criminal defendants who experience consequences for their offenses sooner and can benefit from being placed in appropriate treatment programs sooner.

"Overall, the criminal justice community appears to agree that ECR has sped up the court and that expedited processing is, in general, a benefit to the entire system," researchers wrote.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the evaluation, reported recently to the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, shows early successes and continued promise of the approach. Many cases that lingered 120-180 days are now being resolved in month, he said.

"What we know is, early case resolution works. It is a program that is beneficial to defendants and is beneficial to the criminal justice system. It is beneficial to the jail and it is beneficial to our taxpayers. This is a model, for the first time, that is giving us an opportunity to make significant and meaningful inroads into the criminal justice system," Gill said.

One goal of ECR is to efficiently handle certain types of felony and class A misdemeanor cases such as drug and property offenses. The thinking is, bringing those types of cases to a fast conclusion relieves prosecutors' and legal defenders' resources for cases that require more time and attention.

Patrick Anderson, director of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, said early on, his office had concerns whether increasing the speed at which cases were resolved would have negative consequences for clients.

Eight experienced Legal Defender attorneys have been assigned to ECR cases, which helps the office quickly identify cases that require additional resources if a police search or stop raises constitutional concerns, as well as those that can be more readily resolved. 

"We think we're getting good resolutions for our clients. They're getting them sooner, and generally it's the same resolution (than before), and they're appropriate resolutions for our clients and they're happier," Anderson said.

When appropriate cases — usually drug or property offenses — are handled in an expedited manner, clients need to come to court one or two times, compared with five or six hearings in the past.

Another benefit of early case resolution has been fewer warrants issued for their arrests or additional charges for failing to appear, Anderson said.

"We get more people engaged in the process. We get them to court sooner so we don't lose as many people through the back door," Anderson said.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said the county is still evaluating the impact to the jail, but "what we do know, there has been a drop in our overcrowding releases."

Jail officials are continuing to analyze the university report and its own data to determine connections.

"What the result will be, hopefully, is decreased length of stay," Winder said, noting a growing body of criminal justice research supports that long jail terms do not necessarily result in lower rates of recidivism.

Like other ERC partners, Winder said he wants available jail resources to be used as efficiently and effectively as possible.

"Say I have a restaurant and I have 50 seats. If can roll those tables three times a night, I can serve 150 people. But maybe someone sits a while and has beverages, the less I can use that table. Maybe I only get 100 people through. The exact same phenomena occurs in the jail," he said.

The goals of ECR, initiated in 2011, are to create a more effective and efficient criminal justice system and to increase public safety and protect victims by reducing recidivism.

The first-year evaluation by the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah found that the collaborative effort among prosecutors, defense attorneys, criminal justice agencies and the court system indicated some program goals have been achieved, some are on track to meet benchmarks and others have been stymied by implementation issues.

"Overall, the criminal justice community appears to agree that ECR has sped up the court and that expedited processing is, in general, a benefit to the entire system," researchers wrote.

Other benchmarks include greater accountability for offenders, meaning more will report to court as ordered, therefore reducing warrants by 70 percent and resulting in the filing of fewer charges for "failure to appear."

Another goal is to channel ERC offenders into appropriate sentencing and treatment programs within 30 days of arrest and booking.

"Nevertheless, survey results also indicated that some criminal justice professionals felt that the redistribution of resources was not uniform across the system and that some agencies have more work as a result of ECR," the report said.

Anecdotal responses to researchers' qualitative questions suggests the new model is challenging "and will continue to be until we get all the problems worked out and get the support of all judges," one respondent wrote.

One judge interviewed by researchers opined that ERC has been successful. "I believe it has made the court more efficient, as well as the other agencies. I believe it has helped defendants pay their debt to society and then move on with their lives more expeditiously. I'm actually proud of what we've accomplished in ECR."

The initiative, launched under former Salt Lake District Attorney Lohra Miller and continued under her successor, Gill, was initially funded with stimulus funds.

Gill said ECR has meant a sea change for all stakeholders, but the early results suggest all are on the right track.

"Change is hard, but change is also an opportunity," he said. "I've been a prosecutor amost 20 years. There are very few things I've seen in the criminal justice system that are actually transformative. Mental health court is transformative. Drug court is transformative. Early Case Resolution is transformative."

The continued success of the approach will depend on a like level of commitment from all stakeholders, Anderson said. 

2 comments on this story

"Our concern has been it does take a commitment of resources by all parties. We need to make sure we have enough leeway to spend adequate time with our clients," he said.

Defense attorneys do not want clients to enter plea agreements "because the deal sounds good. We want them to take a deal because it's the rational and thought-out thing to do," Anderson said.

Early case resolution is not the end all, but it provides a means to improve the criminal justice system, Gill said.

"It gives us a toehold to start looking for efficiencies in a committed way because you have all the stakeholders committed to creating that efficiency," he said.