County attorney candidates urge changes to Justice Reinvestment Initiative

At their regular meeting on July 26, the members of the Cache County Council voted to retain the services of Sage Forensic Accounting to conduct an analysis of current county financial controls.

CACHE COUNTY – The candidates seeking appointment as Cache County Attorney all agree that Utah’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) badly needs fine-tuning.

Those opinions were voiced by attorney candidates Jacob Gordon, John Luthy and Dane Murray during interviews by members of the Cache County Council on Aug, 3.

Gordon and Murray are prosecutors in the Criminal Division of the County Attorneys Office and Luthy is the chief deputy attorney in the county’s Civil Division.

Despite their differing duties, all three lawyers agreed that the state’s well-intended JRI program has fallen short of its goals.

When state lawmakers passed legislation establishing the JRI in 2014, their goal was to reduce Utah’s prison population and increase treatment programs.

Advocates of the initiative argued that cost-savings would result from moving low-level drug offenders from incarceration to community supervision. Those savings could then be re-allocated to drug treatment programs that would rehabilitate offenders and reduce crime rates.

But recent studies have found that recidivism among drug offenders has actually increased by 8 percent since JRI was implemented and that its reduced sentencing guidelines have put many of the wrong people back on Utah’s streets.

Luthy is a Cache Valley native and a graduate of Utah State University and law school at Brigham Young University. He joined the staff of the Cache County Attorney’s Office about two years ago.

Of the three candidates for county attorney, Luthy was the least critical of JRI.

He does, however, disagree with portions of JRI that allow individuals charged with driving under the influence to immediately be released on bail. That’s particularly inappropriate, Luthy added, when the DUI involves serious injuries or deaths.

Luthy also believes that JRI reforms should include the state allocating additional resources to mental health treatment.

“Because of shortcomings in our mental health system,” he explained, “our criminal justice system sometimes has to deal with mental health issues more than it is equipped or designed to.”

Gordon is a 12-year veteran of the County Attorney’s Office, with experience serving in juvenile, adult, justice and drug court activities. He has prosecuted violence against women offenses and provided voluntary legal advice to Utah State University students.

The criminal justice system is made up of people and as people were are inherently flawed,” Gordon told county council members. “That means that we should always be striving to be better.”

But Gordon said that the supposed JRI reforms actually hampered statewide drug rehabilitation efforts.

“I agree with its emphasis placed on rehabilitation and counseling,” he explained. “When I was serving in the drug court, that was the single most effective tool we had to rehabilitate drug addicts and help them lead better lives.”

But JRI lowered the severity of drug charges and gave drug offenders the option of accepting 30 days in jail rather than two years in drug court.

“Drug rehabilitation isn’t an overnight process and getting people to participate in drug court was really difficult after JRI was enacted,” according to Gordon.

After six years in the Cache County Attorney’s Office, Murray is now assigned to violence against women prosecutions, including felony child abuse, felony domestic violence and all sex crimes involving women and children.

While prosecuting those cases, county attorneys have been fighting the JRI reforms ever since they were enacted, Murray said, particularly those involving sentencing guidelines, liberal bail policies and lax collection of restitution for victims.

In a recent second-degree child abuse case, for example, the JRI sentencing matrix recommended a minimal 90-day jail term followed by probation because the defendant had no previous criminal history.

”That’s unacceptable to me,” he emphasized. “It’s something that I think we need to be putting pressure on the Legislature to change.”

During the interview process on Tuesday, the candidates also discussed their views of the appropriate role of the county attorney and future challenges facing the county’s legal office.

The candidate selected by the members of the Cache County Council will serve out the unexpired term of former county attorney James Swink, which will last until Dec. 31, 2022.

The vote to select the successful candidate will take place during the next county council meeting on Aug. 10 and the new county attorney will be sworn into office on Aug. 11.

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