Haste Supplanting Help in Early-Case Resolution? 

County court program speeds defenants through process, but may overlook treatment

The Salt Lake Legal Defender Association’s Teresa Welc - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • The Salt Lake Legal Defender Association’s Teresa Welc

“Good luck, sir,” says the judge after dishing out a nine-month jail sentence to a 23-year-old who just pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer. The prisoner, shackled at the wrists and ankles, exits through a side door as prosecutors shuffle paperwork and defense attorneys step outside to have a private word with clients.

A big guy with cursive writing tattooed across his forehead holds his head in his hands. In the back row, a fidgety young man in a two-sizes-too-big gray suit sits next to his mother, who doesn’t look happy when he has her run some of his paperwork up to a bailiff because he doesn’t want to be “fucking harassed.”

This is Salt Lake County’s Early Case Resolution court, the gears of which are running fast and smooth on this freezing December morning.

In one morning session alone, court officials say, up to 100 cases can be resolved through the program, known as ECR. Implemented in early 2011, ECR has been the criminal-justice system’s equivalent of a 5-gallon shot of Drano. Defendants who had historically languished in jail for up to a month on drug, theft or forgery charges now cruise through the justice system’s complex maze of pipes in a couple of weeks.

At ECR’s heart is a group of prosecutors and defense attorneys who join forces to hammer out quick and efficient plea deals, which appear to largely satisfy the needs of everyone involved. Defendants get out of jail and can resume their lives, albeit with a guilty plea, while prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys see the girth of their caseloads diminish in an afternoon.

But for all its efficiencies, ECR has fostered an odd critique from some defense attorneys: The deals prosecutors offer in this high-speed environment can be so good that they sometimes overlook what’s really ailing a defendant, notably drug addiction or mental illness.

“It’s created a wonderful problem as far as a defense attorney is concerned,” says Neal Hamilton, president of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It’s created a nightmare as far as treatment is concerned.”

That “wonderful problem,” Hamilton explains, is that defendants funneled through ECR are sometimes offered plea deals that are too sweet to turn down, but that in the long run don’t actually help treat a person’s addiction, or even keep them out of jail.

But, he adds, if resolving multitudes of criminal cases in a lightning-fast manner is the goal, the program has been a great success.

A report by the University of Utah’s Criminal Justice Center, which has been commissioned to issue an annual study on ECR, shows that during the program’s first year, new cases handled in ECR court were resolved in an average of 28 days compared to the 94 it took to resolve non-ECR cases.

The rapidity of case resolution has also had an impact on the number of days a person spends in jail. Of defendants with cases pending who were booked into jail on outstanding warrants, those in the ECR program spent an average of six days in jail compared to 22 days for non-ECR defendants, according to the report, which officials say is one of only two of its kind in the country.

This, says Teresa Welch, an ECR supervisor and felony-trial attorney for the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, is one of the many benefits of quickly resolving cases.

But Welch, too, says speed can come with a price. Some of her clients, itching to get out of jail, have taken plea deals to what she called “trumped up” charges despite her cautioning against it. And at times, she says, the speed with which her clients must make a decision on a plea deal—usually 30 days—is too quick for them to comprehend the consequences.

“Just because cases are fast-tracked does not mean that my clients’ lives are fast-tracked,” Welch says. “What cannot happen is the speed of the program to overrun clients that have mental-health issues and drug-addiction issues that need to be addressed.”

Patrick Fleming, Salt Lake County’s director of substance abuse, says he’s not surprised to hear that some defendants with addiction issues are falling through the cracks.

“The capacity that we have to provide treatment services for all those that need it is not near adequate,” he says, citing a wide-reaching funding shift from the private to the public sector that has strained these services. “The cracks are much bigger now because there’s just so much more of a demand.”

The justice-center report also included a survey of judges, attorneys and court staff involved with ECR. While most who responded to the survey said they felt ECR quickly resolved cases, opinions about the consequences of the program were wide-ranging. A judge who responded to the survey noted that ECR had a number of downsides, including that “defendants often don’t get the benefit of treatment programs they would otherwise receive.”

Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Mike Postma, who helped develop ECR, said speeding up the process has had a number of positive impacts on the justice system. Notably, he says, ECR allows prosecutors and defense attorneys to focus their energy on more serious cases.

“From a prosecution standpoint, we feel like we’re achieving our goals,” Postma says. “The offers that we’re making, we feel like we’re getting what we need to out of the case.”

Postma says that when ECR first launched in 2011, some prosecutors worried that the deals being offered to defendants were too soft. That attitude, he said, has changed, though he says he’s aware of grumblings that some defendants aren’t receiving the help they need.

“We have heard that complaint from defense, so we’ve tried to keep the drug court full and we try to walk a fine line between moving the cases through and making sure that all of the recommendations are appropriate,” Postma says.

The justice-center report focused its findings on whether ECR sped up the process, and is silent on the topic of treatment. But according to Audrey Hickert, a research assistant professor who is compiling the reports, the second edition will address this issue. She notes that in addition to tales of defendants not receiving the help they need, there have been reports that the rapidity of the process has gotten people into helpful programs much quicker than before.

“Our perspective is that any outcome is possible,” she says. “We have no notion in what direction it might be changing or if it’s changing at all.”

It is in recidivism rates that, says 3rd District Judge Deno Himonas, the true value of ECR will be measured. And he expects that when the university reports are concluded, they will shed light in this area. Until then, he says, one can only speculate on ECR’s overall effectiveness.

Himonas says that ECR could cause a drop in recidivism rates because defendants are being processed closer to the time of the alleged offense—but speedier processing might also increase recidivism because the system isn’t as punitive as it might otherwise be.

“Until the data is all in and analyzed, we just don’t know,” he said.

And until that time, Welch says, it’s important to keep an eye on what really matters: helping people beat their problems and stay out of the criminal justice system.

“It’s not speed that matters, it’s efficiencies,” she says. “Instead of speed, we need efficient justice.”

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