Mayor Marcus Stevenson's Message (February 2024)
Understanding the Complexities of Criminal Justice within the Three Branches of Government
Our governance system is broken up into three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. While this system is made clear at the federal level between the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court, many do not always realize that this system is replicated at the state and local level. In Midvale, this system is created with the mayor, city council, and justice court judge. In Midvale, the mayor, council, and judge share administrative staff who ensure that the day-to-day operations throughout the city take place. In this month’s message, I hope to explain more about how municipal justice courts work, and in which ways Midvale City is directly involved with the judicial system, and which ways we are not.
While justice court staff are Midvale City employees and act as a department of our city, the State oversees court policies, ensuring each judge across the State has similar powers and responsibilities. Here in the State, justice court judges are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council, but unlike the US Supreme Court, where justices may serve a lifetime appointment, in Utah, registered voters get to vote whether to retain a justice court judge every six years. The judge will serve as that community’s judge until they don’t receive enough votes to be retained or decide to leave the role.
In Utah, only lower-level crimes come before local justice courts, meaning infractions, and class B and C misdemeanors. Anything above this (class A misdemeanors and felonies) goes to higher level courts, that cities do not oversee. A few examples of what may come before a city justice court are: infractions for parking or speeding tickets, class C misdemeanors for intoxication or driving without insurance, and class B misdemeanor for criminal trespass and assault. In Salt Lake County, none of these charges are likely to result in substantial jail time, unless someone is a repeat offender or is not compliant with probation.
Within the justice system, one of the city’s roles is to prosecute those cases that come before the justice court. Here in Midvale, we have one full-time prosecutor who represents the city on all matters before our court. As an example, if you receive a speeding ticket from a police officer, you may schedule a court date before our judge, and the Midvale prosecutor will have the opportunity to discuss the ticket with you. The prosecutor will decide how to proceed with a case and will weigh the available evidence and other relevant information to decide whether to set a case for trial, negotiate a plea deal, or even dismiss a case.
In Midvale, we recognize that committing a crime does not necessarily make you a criminal. People make mistakes. Our goal is not to punish for punishment’s sake. Our goal is to hold people accountable for their actions, protect victims and the public at large, provide fair and respectful treatment throughout the court process, and address the root issue that led to the crime in the first place. With every case, our prosecutors try to craft resolutions that will help prevent someone from committing the same crime again. Is alcoholism leading to domestic violence? Is a drug addiction leading to shoplifting? Is a mental health issue leading to drug use or excessive alcohol consumption? Has too much time passed since someone reviewed common traffic laws? Instead of simply recommending a significant jail sentence or fine, we believe that people should be given resources to address their problems and be provided incentives that can encourage someone to change their behavior. In some instances—especially for repeat offenders—sometimes the only tool available to our prosecutors is recommending a harsh sentence.
Because Midvale City only has jurisdiction over lower-level crimes, if a charge comes before the city that could be enhanced, then the government with jurisdiction over that crime must agree to prosecute that case. As an example, if someone is arrested for a basic assault, but then when reviewing the case, our prosecutor finds that it qualifies as domestic violence and the defendant has previous domestic violence convictions, then they can try to get the county take that case and charge it as such. Most enhancements – previous domestic violence convictions, previous DUI convictions, gang crimes, hate crimes, amongst others – are charged at a higher level than a class B misdemeanor, meaning the county must agree to prosecute the case and charge it as such in district court. To avoid constitutional issues, the city will relinquish its case and dismiss it at the justice court level so the county can proceed with its prosecution.
Clearly our law enforcement officers are going to have a role in the criminal justice system, as they are the ones who are tasked to enforce many local, county, state, and federal laws. However, once a police officer writes a ticket or arrests someone, their role is largely over. It is important to note that an officer only needs probable cause to arrest someone. A citation or an arrest does not mean someone is guilty of a charge, it only means that there was sufficient evidence at the time to lead the officer to believe that the person had more likely than not committed a crime. After collecting evidence and arresting a suspect or issuing a citation, it’s now in the hands of the prosecutor to prove those charges, and the hands of the court to weigh those charges while listening to both the prosecution and defense, and ultimately determine the final sentencing.
While movies and TV may exaggerate the police role, our officers do not determine how long someone stays in jail or what crimes someone is convicted of. Further, while some of our favorite shows may depict officers hunting someone down for a warrant, at a justice court level, that’s generally not the case. Our officers do not, and frankly should not, go busting down doors to arrest someone for the vast majority of cases that come before a justice court. Instead, there are other ways to make sure you eventually address your warrant. One example of this is that the State’s Driver’s License Division may suspend your license if you have a warrant for a driving violation or drug- or alcohol-related offense, and you may face additional fines or consequences. If you have avoided your warrant long enough, you may be taken to jail from a typical traffic stop until a judge is able to speak with you regarding your case.
Salt Lake County Jail
Lastly, an area that plays into the criminal justice system and how certain cases are treated, is the jail. Since the Salt Lake County jail provides the jail service for every city within our county, this is also an area that is out of the hands of cities. Specifically for Salt Lake County, the jail is almost always at capacity, meaning that they tend to only hold the most violent offenders or those who are likely to flee before being seen in court. When someone is sent to jail, the Sheriff’s office will determine how long someone stays in jail – a decision that neither police nor prosecutors and, in some instances, even judges don’t control.
A Complicated System
Clearly the criminal justice system is complicated, but it’s built this way to ensure individuals receive their constitutionally protected due process. The system is intended to provide checks and balances and protect the rights of accused individuals. For me, I’m proud that we have a judge and prosecutor who are focused on trying to address the root of a problem rather than just jailing our way out of the challenges we have as a community. While jail serves a purpose, and it’s an option we need to have available, our first resort should be trying to help people make better choices through accountability, incentives and consequences, support, and resources.