Salt Lake County initiative helps hundreds accused of minor crimes stay out of court, data shows

District Attorney Sim Gill started his pre-filing diversion program two years ago.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is expanding a program aimed at keeping low-level offenders out of the court system after data shows it has helped hundreds of people avoid the criminal justice system — most of whom did not go on to commit new crimes.

Gill’s pre-filing diversion program targets people who have been arrested for minor, non-violent crimes. Instead of filing criminal charges against them, prosecutors connect them to case workers who help them with required classes or other resources they might need.

Participants stay out of the criminal justice system entirely if they complete the requirements and don’t commit any new crimes while in the program, which lasts between four and six months.

Gill said Wednesday that he started a pilot program two years ago with the intent of “slowing the flow” of people coming into Salt Lake County’s courts and jails.

“When you are in the criminal justice system,” he said, “you end up with all sorts of collateral consequences.”

A criminal conviction, he said, can limit someone’s housing opportunities or job prospects. And it can be a drain on police and prosecutors, as well, if people recidivate and stay in the system.

There have been 313 graduates of the program in the last two years, according to district attorney data, and only 8.5% of them went on to commit new crimes.

There were 37 who failed the program and had criminal charges filed against them.

Not open to violent offenders

It’s a voluntary program, officials said — but it’s not intended for people accused of violent crimes or domestic violence.

Case manager Mauna Liddiard said Wednesday that she often deals with young people arrested for minor crimes like marijuana possession or underage drinking. She also works with older people, she said, who had never done anything criminal before but something happened in their lives that “set them on a path they would never have normally have gone.” She works to provide them with support and connect them to classes.

“Those classes are meant to educate,” she said. “Maybe get them thinking about what they did and learning new ways they can deal with stressors in their lives. And come out of it feeling like they have made some progress.”

Gill said he’s looking to expand his pilot program, with a goal of 10% of the cases that come across his prosecutors’ desks to go through the pre-filing diversion program instead of a traditional prosecution in court. The expansion will also include people who are of “moderate risk and moderate need,” he said, who would need more program support like drug addiction treatment.

The program has the support of two of the county’s police chiefs.

“We are not going to arrest out way out of the problems we have,” said Draper Police Chief John Eining. “We can not impact root causes by putting people in jail. It’s critically important to us to use these diversion programs.”

West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine said the pre-filing diversion program is a cost-effective approach to justice that helps keep people from becoming “repeat customers” of his police department.

“It’s a win for my community,” he said. “A win for our families. A win for public safety.”

Eining added that he hoped pre-filing diversion programs would be expanded throughout the state.

Similar Utah County program will be eliminated

Utah County is the only other prosecutor’s office in the state that has a pre-filing diversion program — but it appears it will be eliminated when a new county attorney takes office in January.

The program was one of the first reform efforts Utah County Attorney David Leavitt implemented when he took office in 2019. But Leavitt received pushback from police, former prosecutors and politicians because of it.

He recently lost his bid for re-election in the Republican primaries, and because there is no Democrat running, challenger Jeff Gray will take office in January.

Gray said Thursday that he believes Leavitt’s pre-filing diversion program doesn’t hold defendants accountable, and he plans to wind it down. He said he plans to use a more traditional model where a person is charged, pleads guilty and that plea is held in abeyance until they complete certain requirements. If they do that, then a judge would dismiss the case.

“My concern with the program is that there’s really no accountability — on all sides,” Gray said. “There’s no judicial oversight. We have to take the county attorney’s word that it’s successful.”