Going into a courtroom can be challenging for those who have reported being sexually assaulted or abused by someone they trusted. That’s why advocates offer their support, like volunteering to go along.
But an upcoming change in how cases are assigned to judges could create a barrier for people who are testifying or providing evidence against a former partner or a family member, said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
Utah court officials announced recently that cases soon will be assigned at random between the downtown Salt Lake City courthouse and the location in West Jordan — courthouses that are 14 miles and about a 20-minute drive apart.
Up to this point, cases were assigned to judges based on geography. Charges related to crimes that allegedly occurred in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley were heard in front of judges in West Jordan. Those farther north would go to the downtown location.
The change concerns Oxborrow and dozens of others, who worry that a witness who lives in Salt Lake City’s Avenues may have trouble getting to West Jordan. Or what about defendants in Herriman who would need to get to Salt Lake City for their court case?
“We should be trying to make criminal justice [processes] more accessible to the people that are using them,” Oxborrow said. “Certainly survivors and victims. I think that should be our utmost priority.”
Thirty-six government officials — ranging from prosecutors to public defenders to police chiefs to mayors and city council members — signed and delivered a letter Wednesday asking the presiding judges to reconsider the policy change. But so far, 3rd District Presiding Judge Mark Kouris shows no sign of changing course.
The letter outlines concerns not just for defendants and victims, but also police officers who are frequently subpoenaed to testify in court.
West Jordan Sgt. J.C. Holt said it’s common for officers in his department to testify in two cases in one day. That’s a manageable task when most, if not all, of their cases end up at the courthouse in their city.
“It works really well for us,” he said. “Oftentimes, [officers] get a subpoena for the middle of their shift, and they can go off the road to go to court. It’s a much closer location; it’s right in our agency. They can get out of court and go to the calls.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said that, for him, it’s an issue of access to justice for people in the Salt Lake Valley. While he’s sympathetic to the growing caseloads that the judges are forced to shoulder, he said, the focus should be on the people whom the courts are serving.
“This impacts victims, witnesses, defendants, law enforcement and local communities in adverse ways,” he said. “Our interest is to advocate for the interests of 1.2 million people for a more fair and equitable access to the courts.”
But Kouris, the presiding judge, said in a statement Friday that the change will bring more equity to the court system. He said that currently the judges in West Jordan have a much heavier caseload — which means less time to devote to each case.
“This not only comprises procedural fairness but results in lower compliance with the judge’s orders and higher recidivism rates for defendants," he said.
Kouris said the change is being made in response to feedback from prosecutors, defense attorneys, security and court personnel.
He noted that Utah County’s courthouses moved to randomly assigning cases five years ago — which required some to travel an extra 23 miles among the three courthouses — and “they have not experienced negative impacts on access to justice and public safety.”
He added that the 3rd District already randomly assigns judges to cases (and across courthouses) in civil and domestic cases.
The presiding judge also said that since the West Jordan courthouse was built in 2005, there’s been significant changes in the valley. A TRAX line goes to West Jordan, and homeless shelters are no longer concentrated in the downtown Salt Lake City area.
“As Salt Lake valley’s population and demographics continue to shift and change with the building of new homes in the south end of the valley and new apartment complexes downtown," he said, "this change enables us to level caseloads to provide equal access to justice.”
Kouris said the change will take effect February 1, 2020.
Government officials who signed the letter hope Kouris will reconsider. They worry defendants won’t show up for court if another 14 miles is added to their trip, which will mean more warrants and an impact to county jails. They’re concerned that the distance could put an undue burden on witnesses who don’t have access to cars. And they worry about public safety if an officer takes more time away from his or her shift to drive to a location farther away to testify.
The officials noted that when the West Jordan courthouse was built, court officials touted it as a way to keep up with growing caseloads, particularly in the southwestern part of Salt Lake County.
“Our constituents expected the West Jordan courthouse and, by reasoned extension, the downtown courthouse, would serve the geographical areas around those respective courthouses,” the letter reads. “The plan changes all that.”