Judges in Utah’s busiest courts feel overwhelmed.
They are juggling more cases than ever, which often means long waits for defendants — some sitting for hours handcuffed in holding cells for a quick appearance before a judge.
Court officials asked for reinforcements and more money from the Legislature but received only half of what they sought.
So now they are trying to find ways to spread out the cases.
They’ve decided to start randomly assigning cases between West Jordan and Salt Lake City, a move that many in the criminal justice system have criticized. And a change starting this week will put juvenile court judges in a new role over adult cases.
Third District Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Renee Jimenez usually deals with delinquency cases and child welfare hearings. But Jimenez and nine other juvenile court judges will start presiding over first court appearances for adults and make decisions about whether to grant protective orders or stalking injunctions.
Jimenez and the other judges have received training over the past month, sometimes sitting side by side with a district court judge to learn how to handle the shuffle of adult defendants coming before the court for the first time after being charged with a crime.
“They’re really not that much different,” Jimenez said of the adult and youth courts. “[Judges read] the nature of the charge and set a date for the next hearing. It’s extremely similar.”
But there are some differences, Jimenez acknowledged. The adult courtrooms are generally more packed.
And while she frequently makes decisions about whether a young person should be kept in a detention center, Jimenez doesn’t assign bail amounts for youths like she’ll now do for adults. She’ll also probably have to weigh an adult’s risk to public safety differently than she does with children, who tend to be lower-risk because of their age.
The shift is expected to be temporary. The 3rd District juvenile court judges have only made a one-year commitment. This case-sharing is new for this district — which covers Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties — but court officials say it happens much more frequently in rural courts.
Juvenile court judges farther north often help with protective orders and stalking injunctions, according to courts spokesman Geoff Fattah. And those in rural areas to the south often help with signing warrants, overseeing speciality courts and issuing protective orders.
But it’s a first for Utah’s biggest district, where the number of adult cases have been rising with the growing population. In 2014, there were 15,095 cases filed, spread out among 28 judges. Six years later, that number has jumped to more than 18,000 for 31 judges.
That trend is reversed in the juvenile courtrooms. Recent juvenile justice reforms intended to keep kids out of the court system altogether have meant fewer Utah children have been in front of Jimenez and the other juvenile court judges in recent years.
Jimenez said the juvenile court judges are excited to take on the new challenge, and to help out the district court judges.
“I hesitate to say we’re less busy,” she said. “We’re working as hard as we ever have. We’re just going to be spending some of our time in the district court.”
Third District Presiding Judge Mark Kouris said the juvenile court judges chipping in will help free up about two weeks of time for each of the district court judges. Their schedules, he said, have gotten “too unruly” — sometimes as many as 170 defendants are scheduled to have their cases heard in the same day in front of the same judge.
This often means people who are supposed to be in court at 8:30 a.m. may not have their cases called until well into the afternoon, Kouris said. Those scheduled for afternoon hearings may not be before the judge until after 7 p.m.
That means defendants are either sitting in courtrooms waiting for their turn — or if they are in custody, it could mean hours spent in a holding cell.
“Needless to say, it’s a strain on everyone,” Kouris said, “and, obviously, that poor defendant.”
Kouris said it’s also been a challenge for attorneys to schedule hearings when the judge’s caseloads are so bloated, which often drags out cases longer if the next available block of time is several months out.
The presiding judge says he’s never had to juggle this many cases before. When he first took the bench 20 years ago, he handled maybe 30 cases each day. Now, it’s not unusual to have 120 and in some rare days, up to 170.
Kouris said he hopes that with juvenile court judges pitching in and other changes, judges will be able to see that number go down and consequently reduce the wait time for defendants.
“This will cause every judge to be able to spend more time with each defendant,” he said. “I think that’s a huge advantage.”
The shift comes after the courts had asked for more funding for 3rd District judges during last year’s legislative session. Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said during the annual State of the Judiciary address that they really needed nearly seven judges to handle the growing caseload — but they sought funding for four.
“The people need our careful attention to this matter,” he told lawmakers last January. “They rightfully expect timely service from, and access to, our courts, and we can’t deliver it without your assistance and support.”
Legislators ended up funding two new judge positions.
Court officials say it’s likely they’ll ask again for more funding for judges. But in the meantime, the courts have made another move in an attempt to even out caseloads.
Last fall, court officials announced that cases will soon 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.
Kouris said then that the change was intended to bring more equity to the system, because judges in West Jordan were shouldering a much heavier caseload than those who worked downtown.
The announcement was met by pushback from dozens of government officials, who expressed concern that the policy change will make it more difficult for defendants and witnesses to get to court. Previously, the cases were assigned geographically.
But Kouris shows no sign of changing course, and that change is expected to roll out next month. Instead, Kouris is focused on keeping the wheels of justice rolling and having fewer people appear before a judge on any given day.