Next for Utah criminal justice reform? The court system

This op-ed, published this week in the Deseret News, was co-written by Libertas Institute policy intern Westley Cottam.

The current climate of distrust in government and law enforcement has spurred an increasing demand for government agencies to take an introspective look at how they handle criminal justice matters. Some agencies, like Utah’s Department of Public Safety, have done a good job of gathering the public alongside different stakeholder and activist groups to discuss relevant policy changes such as police reforms.

Even though much of the current focus has been channeled on the “larger” parts of the justice system (and rightfully so), there is also much need for a reassessment in the “smaller” parts of the justice system. The justice court system here in the state of Utah is one such area that would greatly benefit from a thorough review. After all, it’s the area of the justice system that most Utahns will likely interact with, even if it’s just for a traffic ticket.

Utah’s courts and justice court judges were ahead of the public outcry and assembled a task force in the spring of 2020 to evaluate the current practices of the state’s justice courts and suggest potential reforms.

The problems the task force evaluated ranged from judges’ salaries to the overall structure and organization of the system. This assessment is a welcomed step forward, especially since justice courts oftentimes have a negative public perception as debt collectors rather than keepers of justice.

One of the major concerns is that Utah justice courts are structured in a way that places them as a major breadwinner for the municipality or county in which they reside, thus fostering possible incentives of revenue collection.

Upon closer inspection of court financials, the accusations of money-making off of justice court defendants is largely unfounded, or in some cases unprovable. That being said, the current structuring of justice court funding is set up in a way that leaves room for perverse incentives — so why not close the gap?

One way to remedy an area of potential conflict of interest is to address the salary concern for the decision-makers, who, in this case, are justice court judges. The state could set justice court judge pay at a fraction of what district court judges make rather than leaving it up to the city or county with a larger possibility for variance and negotiation. This would greatly eliminate possible perverse financial incentives for judges and ensure that judges aren’t preoccupied with “money-making” matters. This is one recommendation also backed by the task force.

The justice court system would also benefit from a restructuring of its entire budget and funding streams. A possible solution is that justice courts shouldn’t be funded by defendants; rather, they should be supported by general government funds. This would further remove any perception of increased fines being used to fund the court system.

It is also somewhat disconcerting that judges often don’t consider a defendant’s ability to pay the fines and fees that courts charge. We surveyed 18 defense attorneys throughout Utah to assess whether the defendant’s financial status is being taken into consideration in justice courts. Out of the 18 attorneys surveyed, 13 said that judges rarely or never consider a defendant’s ability to pay — even though they’re required by law to do so.

Judges should be offering defendants the ability to perform community service in lieu of a fine to ensure individuals who are indigent can come into compliance without a large financial burden from stopping them. Justice should not depend on whether you can pay.

Every Utahn has the right to have a fair and impartial court experience. The justice court is no exception. Adjustments to and further examination of Utah’s justice court system would not only allow for a more equitable court process, but would also foster a positive public perception.