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John Florez: Unraveling the criminal justice system

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It seems Utah's criminal justice system is suffering from the same malady afflicting many of our governmental institutions today: it's outdated and has a hodgepodge of subsystems — the Legislature, courts, Board of Pardons (Board) and the Department of Corrections (Corrections) — that lack a coherent working strategy to protect the public. The system lacks accountability as to who is responsible for what.

The result of such confusion can be seen with the Department of Corrections, which has no control over who gets in and who gets out, yet is responsible for the management of convicted criminals while in prison, on probation and on parole. It's a $285 million industry that makes its annual plea for more prison bed space and more money for community supervision of probationers and parolees. It's only when a tragedy occurs that public attention forces lawmakers to throw money at the problem and ignore the underlying causes.

Little attention is given to the factors that lead to this lack of accountability. It starts with the lawmakers and how their laws define crime and how best to protect society in today's more complex and changing world. Then, there are the courts with overcrowded calendars, limited resources to properly determine disposition of cases, and with no control over probation officers.

There is also the Board of Pardons that determines the length of incarceration, parole supervision and commutation of sentences and pardons, with no control over parole officers responsible for carrying out its orders. Probation and parole officers now are under the supervision of Corrections, rather than the courts and Board, and that makes it difficult for the courts and Board to enforce their orders. There needs to be a clear definition of who is responsible for what.

The criminal justice system, like other public institutions that have overlapping responsibilities, finds there is no accountability as to who is responsible for the safety of the public. Parole officers are supposed to assist prisoners in making a successful return to society, but often focus on waiting for them to violate the Board's orders and return them to prison. The Board lacks the power to control the actions of parole officers and finds itself in a "catch 22." It may well be the concept of parole is outdated and should be replaced with determinate sentences.

The Legislature ought to make the following changes: review its policy making so it can consider how best to promote public safety in a cost-effective way, have the courts administer the probation program that would assure its orders were being carried out; and have the Board administer the parole program so it can require parole officers to assist offenders in completing their conditions of parole. Consideration should be given to diverting lawbreakers from the system into community programs.

The Legislature should take the lead in renewing the criminal justice system so that it would make it more efficient, cost-effective and in the public's interest. In doing so, they need not look to the Commission on Criminal Justice for answers. It is composed of principals of the system that are supposed to help coordinate the efforts among the applicable agencies; however, it seems to act primarily as a funnel for money from the feds. To involve them would only thwart any change and reinforce the status quo.

The Legislature would do well to seek the advice of citizens, clergy and those most affected by the system including ex felons and their families. But we should hold off throwing more money at the criminal justice system until the structure is changed to where there is clear definition of roles and accountability measures are established by the Legislature.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.