Justice and Due Process

Top 3 Changes to Utah Sentencing Guidelines

The Utah Sentencing Commission has released their new Adult Sentencing, Release, and Supervision Guidelines for 2023, and they are now available for public comment until the end of January.

There are three substantive changes to this edition of the Guidelines:

Financial Offense with Serious Loss Table

The current Guidelines have different tables for homicides, sex and kidnapping offenses, and all other offenses. The new Guidelines include a table for serious financial offenses.

The sentencing guidelines make recommendations based on two things: criminal history and the offense committed. Before, it was pretty common to see the Guidelines recommend only probation for white-collar crimes because the offender had no criminal history. These criminals may have completely destroyed a business through embezzlement or wiped out a senior’s life savings through fraud. This was often quite galling to victims, who felt that their lives had been ruined, while the person who committed the crime was only getting a slap on the wrist.

The new financial offense table now recommends prison for people who commit second degree felony financial offenses that cause at least $50,000 in financial loss. Before, a person who committed the same crime would have been given probation with no jail time and would have had to have the highest level of criminal history possible before the matrix would recommend prison.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors for Sexual Exploitation of a Minor

A person commits sexual exploitation of a minor, a second degree felony, by knowingly possessing or intentionally viewing child pornography — sometimes referred to as child sex abuse material. The new Guidelines recognize that within this crime, there are different degrees of moral turpitude and include aggravating and mitigating factors which may justify a longer or shorter sentence than the recommended standard.

Aggravating factors include possessing sexual abuse imagery depicting infant or toddler victims, attempts by the offender to contact a victim (or an officer posing as a victim), possessing or distributing child pornography for two or more years, and possessing more than 10,000 images.

A mitigating factor is that the offender was younger than twenty-five and had only images of people fourteen and older. 

While recognizing meaningful differences within a crime is important, some of the aggravating circumstances could be improved. For example, no officer wants to look through 10,000 files to confirm they all contain child pornography, especially since it is rare to charge someone with more than ten or so counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.

Changes in Sanctions for Probation Violations

Under current guidelines, successive violations of probation garnered jail sanctions of increasing lengths: fifteen days in jail for the first violation, thirty days for the second, and  forty-five days for the third and successive violations. While this had a certain logic, it meant that a severe first violation, such as committing a new crime, would result in a shorter sanction than a third minor sanction, like failing to make a meeting with a probation officer. It also meant that sanction lengths weren’t geared toward a specific goal — for example, staying in jail long enough to complete a program.

The new guidelines authorize no more than a ninety-day sanction and encourage judges to consider the severity of the violation and the goal served by imposing the sanctions.

Overall, the changes to the guidelines represent movement in a positive direction.