Many Salt Lake County felony and class A misdemeanor cases are taking less time than ever to resolve, thanks to an initiative aimed at expediting the justice process and easing the backlog of routine cases.
The initiative, known as Early Case Resolution, has been speeding up the process in cases identified as easy to resolve — mainly property, drug and public nuisance cases — for more than two years. But, until recently, no one knew by how much.
More than 56 percent of cases deemed ECR-eligible are resolved in 30 days or less from the time charges are filed, according to a University of Utah study. Few take longer than two months.
That means more people move through the judicial process faster, which unclogs the court system at large, and allows attorneys and judges to spend more time, attention and resources on more serious offenses, experts said.
This is due, in part, to the ECR process, which asks prosecutors to provide defendants with a plea offer and a sentence recommendation at first appearance, and allows defense attorneys to meet with clients before they appear in order to work out a defense strategy and the terms of any plea negotiations.
“It’s been phenomenally successful,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “It addresses the issues of a bloated, overcrowded system ... and speeds up the process for cases that we can — and do — resolve in less than a month.”
Before the ECR system was implemented, similar cases could take more than 190 days to be resolved, according to the report. Defendants would see an average of nine hearings before their case came to a close.
Those same cases were found to take a median of 62 days under the new system, with defendants only having to appear for an average of two hearings before seeing a resolution, the study shows.
Cases that didn’t qualify for early resolution also appear to be taking significantly less time.
That’s good news for defendants, said Patrick Anderson, associate director of the Salt Lake County Legal Defenders Association.
Less time to resolution means those who might otherwise spend months behind bars or making court appearances can have their case closed in a fraction of the time, meaning they’re less likely to lose jobs, get evicted from their homes or miss out on school, Anderson said.
But, he cautioned, faster isn’t always better.
Anderson, along with several attorneys and judges cited in the study, voiced concerns about ECR’s impact on how defendants are sentenced and how carefully cases are prosecuted.
“The courts are sentencing too many felony offenders without sufficient information to make the dispositions possible,” a courts administrator told researchers. “Deals are made and sentences given based on minimal [risk needs assessment] principles.”
Several officials worried that defendants with substance abuse problems would not have the time or the opportunity to rehabilitate fully if pushed through the ECR process.
But the push to expedite and streamline the judicial process was never meant to stop with ECR, Gill said. It’s only the beginning of the kind of change he said will benefit both individuals and the system at large, including risk assessment at the time of booking, bolstered drug treatment programs and new options for repeat offenders.
These ideas, he said, are being “explored.”
“ECR begs the second question: If I adjudicate your case early, what do I do with you?” Gill said. “Services have to be there.”
The study, which is the first of three parts, did not examine sentencing or whether offenders who are sentenced through the ECR system go on to re-offend or violate the terms of their probation. Upcoming reports will address those issues, researchers said.