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Revolving Door 

Salt Lake County's sped-up justice system is fueling recidivism, early reports show

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Based on pure speed, nothing flushes a defendant through Salt Lake County's justice system with less friction than the Early Case Resolution program, which some justice officials say is beloved by criminals for its leniency.

In the ECR program, most defendants are arrested, booked into jail, released, processed through court and punished within 30 days.

But lighter court calendars and thin caseloads for prosecutors have come at a cost. Recidivism rates in ECR are 29 percent—8 percentage points higher than the recidivism rate in other court programs, a study conducted by the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah shows.

The ECR program, instituted in 2011, has been propped up by some justice officials as a silver bullet for unclogging a court system that is routinely bogged down. And while it has done its job in that arena, some wonder if the relaxed jail sentences, soft probation terms and sweet deals offered by prosecutors have created a costly revolving door.

"Trading recidivism for speed is unacceptable in my mind," says Steve Nelson, a deputy county prosecutor who is challenging his boss, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, for his job. "If we are enabling recidivism through a program we have formally set up, that the District Attorney's Office works with, why are we in this business? It's not something I can accept as a prosecutor."

Gill, too, says he doesn't enjoy seeing a higher recidivism rate in ECR, but he says the program is far from broken.

"We are creating a new model, executing on it and continuing to add on it as we review what's working and not working and that's the challenge," Gill says. "The exciting thing about the early case resolution is it is a vehicle for systemic change."

Rob Butters, director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center, says that how ECR's recidivism rate stacks up when compared with other wings of the court system should be viewed with caution. Because cases in ECR are less serious than violent felonies that wind up in the more drawn-out court system, he says, measuring one system against another is difficult.

One problematic variable, he says, is the time that defendants are free to re-offend. Because ECR defendants receive an average nine-day prison sentence, while non-ECR defendants receive, on average, 106-day sentences, there's more opportunity for ECR defendants to get into trouble.

"Although it does appear that there's a slight increase in the recidivism rate, we just couldn't flesh out really if there is a significant difference" between ECR and non-ECR courts, Butters says.

Butters says the next report, due in December, will have more thorough data on the program's recidivism rate.

What justice officials do know is that the ECR program has radically sped up a historically slow process. Cases resolved in ECR shoot through in 28 days, compared with 94 days for non-ECR cases. Additionally, among 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 with 22 days for non-ECR defendants, according to the report compiled on the program's first year.

Gill says the sheer speed with which cases are being resolved is a success. But, he says, more needs to be done to address recidivism. Some possibilities for improvement, he says, involve creating a more stable role for judges (several judges currently rotate through the ECR court), and improving the risk assessments that defendants receive while in the justice system.

A key component of the program's swift nature is the willingness of prosecutors to hammer out agreeable plea deals that defendants are inclined to accept.

Steven Shapiro, a defense attorney who has represented clients in ECR, says the deals offered by prosecutors have a tendency to be so good that he's seen defendants plead guilty to charges they could fight and likely win.

"The deals are oftentimes very good," Shapiro says, noting that sometimes, even if the government's case is compromised, it's hard to say no to reduced charges that keep people out of jail and erase black marks from their criminal records.

Fewer ECR defendants than non-ECR defendants are sentenced to any level of probation—70 percent compared with 82 percent, the study showed. And regardless of the charge, most ECR defendants received less probation time than other defendants.

Gill calls the speed of ECR "phenomenal." The program has grown to encompass a significant portion—30 percent, according to Gill—of the county's criminal cases.

And with that level of investment in the ECR program, Nelson says it's important that it works.

"If they're right back out the door without the underlying problem being addressed, it's an invitation for return as far as I'm concerned," he says. "In the end, low recidivism is more efficient than higher speed."

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