A citizens group of retirees and small-business owners is taking names and keeping track of how judges treat criminals who the group believes are ruining their neighborhoods and driving away customers.
And prosecutors say the Court Watch group is making a difference."We are starting to see judges be more cognizant of the concerns of the citizenry, rather than the concerns of defendants," said Salt Lake City assistant prosecutor Jeanne Robison.
That is the hope of Court Watch organizer Verlyn Thomas, who has been attending regular sentencing hearings the past eight months wearing a large white "Court Watcher" identification badge.
Thomas and others follow up their court visits with letters to the 3rd Circuit judges imposing sentences on convicted drunks, drug dealers and prostitutes.
"Sex acts occur in cars in front of our homes, and condoms and needles are left on our lawns," said Thomas, who lives in the State Street corridor between 900 and 2100 South. "The judges are good people, but they've got to learn prostitution is a real crime."
Robison said that before Court Watch the usual penalty for soliciting a prostitute was a $200 fine. Recently, judges have been stepping up fines for johns and putting prostitutes behind bars.
Community service and home confinement is also being imposed.
Presiding 3rd Circuit Judge Robin W. Reese said Court Watch "has heightened our awareness of this kind of crime."
But the judge said the volunteer court monitors haven't changed the way he sentences a defendant. "I try to weigh any case on the merits and look at all the factors," Reese said.
Court Watch is an outgrowth of Neighborhood Watch and Mobile Watch programs. It began with a half-dozen people. Recently, some 50 residents showed up at recruitment and training meetings with local police and prosecutors to be coached on the basics of law and courtroom demeanor.
University of Utah law professor John J. Flynn said citizens have a right to sit in court, but he wondered if city prosecutors are crossing an ethical line by asking them to influence specific cases.
But U. law professor Paul G. Cassell said the involvement of police and prosecutors ensures the group reflects mainstream attitudes.
"I would be worried about a court watch group that didn't reflect community sentiment," he said.
The watchers want to make their neighborhoods better places to live but have no illusions about eradicating prostitution and other crime.
"It's a start," said recruit Victoria Shores.