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Early resolution plan in works to move criminal justice system along

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SALT LAKE CITY — An ambitious plan to streamline the criminal justice process by eliminating as many as 50 percent of felony cases within the first 30 days after they are filed is set to launch in February.

The "aggressive" initiative known as Early Case Resolution is meant to not only streamline the court process and lead to quicker resolutions but also free up more jail space and lower recidivism rates.

"We need something concrete," 3rd District Presiding Judge Robert Hilder said. "We need something that will really make a difference."

Hilder — one of two judges who have been working to implement the system for close to two years — said that now it is not uncommon to sit in a hearing for as many as three hours only to have the hearing continued to a later date. Roll call hearings, scheduling and status conferences can be continued several times.

"We have a long history of those things happening not just once or twice, but five, 10, 15 times with no movement forward," he said.

It was frustration with this process that led current District Attorney Lohra Miler and the Salt Lake City Council to consider this model, Hilder said.

"We're trying to avoid hearings that do not advance a case," Hilder said. "We want hearings that are meaningful. This will free up more time management for more complex cases."

For that to happen, there has to be cooperation from those at all levels, Salt Lake City prosecutor Sim Gill said. Gill will take over as district attorney in January. In addition to prosecutors, he said law enforcement agencies, defense attorneys, probation and parole officers and those in the Salt Lake County 3rd District Court are on-board.

"This is a collaborative effort of multiple stakeholders who are being brought together under a common model, because they all have a role to play in it," Gill said. "This model works on the premise that everybody, every stakeholder, has something to gain."

Gill said the project targets those defendants who attempt to "fatigue" the system in hopes of getting a better deal and aims to eliminate the bottleneck that is created by numerous continuations of hearings. It should also make interactions with defendants more valuable.

"This is not just about an efficient process," Hilder said. "It's a very different way of doing business. It's about early resolutions where people take responsibility. It's about their performance on probation, a sentence that is tailored ... lesser jail or no jail and probation. ... People are more likely to succeed."

He said similar models are currently in place in Florida, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and California, but Salt Lake County would be the largest criminal court in the country to undertake the task. The closest in size, in Sonoma County, Calif., has seen noticeable results, Hilder said.

The project will first be implemented in Salt Lake County, though the 3rd District Court also takes in Summit and Tooele counties. Roughly 10,000 felony cases are filed every year. Hilder said that eventually, anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of cases could be resolved by way of the program.

And it'll have to be at least close to that mark, to make entirely dedicating two judges to the plan worth the time and resources. Criminal defendants will choose early on whether to accept the resolution offer or opt to proceed in the traditional criminal court process.

Gill said integrity from all parties will be key. Prosecutors will review all the evidence and materials early to determine what potential plea deals they are willing to offer and then be honest and sincere in that being the best offer.

"The case is not going to get better, the offer is not going to get sweeter," Gill said. "I have to trust their judgment to make the best offer up front."

This, then, would allow a defendant to have a better idea of what they are facing before deciding whether to accept a plea deal or move toward a trial.

Both Gill and Hilder were clear in saying that while early resolutions would eliminate case loads, they would not decrease work loads. It would just allow for more dedication for the cases that require more effort, such as murders and rapes.

"We're changing the culture of the criminal justice system, because the system is broken," Gill said.

Hilder said he was surprised at the enthusiasm he's seen for the project.

"We so believe in this," Hilder said. "The combined energy has been wonderful. We're just going to have to keep adjusting as this is going along."

He noted, though, that it is private defense attorneys who seem the most concerned about how this model will play out.

"They're the ones with the most questions," he said. "They just wonder how it will change things."

One defense attorney, when asked about the plan, immediately said: "That's going to fall apart," but declined to go on the record on the issue.

Only time will tell how the system will work in action. Hilder is aware the project may not work at all. But, then again, maybe it will.

"This could be the best thing we've ever done before and it could be a total flop," Hilder said. "But if it's a flop, we will learn."

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam