John W. Huber: Chronic offenders are slipping through the state system

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) U.S. Attorney of Utah John Huber speaks outside of the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City in 2017.

A week does not pass without a frustrated Utah police officer or prosecutor approaching my office for help in addressing a recurrent criminal problem in a Utah community. The crimes vary — dangerous drugs, gangs, child exploitation, and domestic violence — but the storyline is consistent.

The Utah Justice Reinvestment Initiative has transformed our excellent state law enforcement and judicial systems into a revolving door. My state partners seek relief by turning to the federal criminal justice system. Federal agents and prosecutors are more than happy to help, but the imbalance does a disservice to Utah and to the United States.

JRI prides itself on reducing the number of criminals who serve prison time and the amount of time that those criminals serve. JRI’s proponents promised huge savings for Utah policymakers: $500 million, or more. Although sold to the public as a way to ensure that taxpayer resources focus on incarcerating “dangerous criminals,” in practice, JRI has resulted in too many dangerous and prolific criminals serving less prison time. With insufficient treatment resources and monitoring by probation and parole officials, they are soon back out on the streets re-victimizing society.

This unfortunate dynamic extends beyond the populous Wasatch Front. Earlier this year, a rural county attorney contacted me directly for assistance. A prolific offender had victimized a small Utah community with property crimes. The county attorney reported that the offender would get no more than six months of jail time with a JRI-inspired state court sentence, and that did not sit well with him.

The county attorney acknowledged that it may not fit the mold of a federal case, but he made a special request that we offer prosecutorial assistance. To paraphrase his words, it would not serve justice to have such an inconsequential sanction in state court for an offender who had repeatedly stolen so much.

Consider one example of the many cases we take to federal court at the request of our state partners. John Gines, a white supremacy gang member, was 38 years old in 2019 when his case of selling methamphetamine came to my office for federal prosecution.

This was not his first brush with the law by any means. Between age 19 and 38, state officers arrested this repeat offender no less than 29 times. On average, that is every eight months over 19 years. Prosecutors did their job, too, and secured convictions 22 times over that span, including 17 felony offenses. His state court convictions included DUI, joyriding, forgery, evading police, theft, aggravated assault by a prisoner and home burglary. Nevertheless, the revolving door kept delivering Gines out of jail, and into our neighborhoods to re-victimize us.

That door would have likely continued to revolve without federal authorities taking action.

Gines is now serving 11 years in federal prison, and when eventually released, federal officers will supervise him for another five years. It will cost approximately $32,000 for each year of imprisonment, and $4,000 for each year of supervised release. Any perceived cost savings in state court was a mirage. The victims of his crimes bore incalculable costs over 19 years of repeated unlawful behavior, and now the actual costs of justice merely shift to the federal budget.

The good news is that there will be a reprieve for Utah residents, police and prosecutors. Over the next 11 years, Gines will not be rearrested every eight months as he was over the past 19 years. He will not steal your car, forge your check, burglarize your home or drive drunk down your street. The revolving door has stopped for this offender, or at the least significantly slowed down. Sadly, he is but one example of state court recidivists who end up in federal court.

Too many dangerous, repeat offenders victimize Utahns without consequential justice from JRI. Because Utah is unwilling to bear the costs of warranted incarceration, the taxpayers of the United States must do so. JRI passes the literal and metaphorical buck on to federal authorities and the federal tax base.

We can better protect our communities, our families, and our neighborhoods when we have effective law enforcement options. Too often, JRI has fostered dynamics where Utah officers and prosecutors perceive that the federal forum is the only place to seek meaningful justice.

John W. Huber

John W. Huber serves as U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah. President Barack Obama appointed him to that position in 2015, and President Donald Trump reappointed him in 2017. The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed each appointment.