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A commendable progress

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Utah's commitment to ensure that the state's criminal justice system is fair to minorities has achieved some successes in the past year, such as recruiting more minority police officers and handling citizen complaints against officers.

But the annual report of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System reveals steep challenges in other areas of the criminal justice system, such as defending indigent people in court.

The collection of data to study the role of race in police profiling and whether defendants of color are treated differently in court is an ongoing challenge. The report notes that some differences in the length of a criminal sentence may be because of socioeconomic disparity or language differences as much as bias. Commission members believe it may take five years to gather a sufficient amount of information for a meaningful analysis.

It has not yet been determined if people of certain ethnicities or races are treated differently in the criminal justice system, but the commission has chalked up some early successes in opening a dialogue among justice system officials and minority and ethnic communities in town hall meetings. They also are encouraging law enforcement agencies to collect more useful data on people they contact in traffic stops and through other interactions.

The commission's work also suggests a need for greater education to combat stereotypes and give law enforcers experience in dealing with minorities. Likewise, some members of minority communities are unaware of how to achieve justice. Seemingly, both groups could gain better awareness through specialized employee training among police agencies and others in the criminal justice system. Community organizations and members of the Utah Bar Association could provide workshops or information printed in several languages to assist people who have interactions with police and the judicial system.

The commission has recommended giving all prosecutor and legal defense offices an equivalent amount of money to what the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association receive. It also suggested forming a statewide appellate public defenders' office. These recommendations would require a substantial commitment of public money, which may or may not be feasible. But they provide fodder for a worthwhile public policy debate.

While the justice commission has much more work and analysis before it, its early efforts are commendable and have created a foundation for further analysis and positive policy changes both in municipalities and the state court system.