Opinion: Here’s why some requests for public records are denied
Utah’s Department of Corrections is supported by taxpayers and we know they deserve to see how we fulfill our mission to manage offenders. But we also must maintain public safety, with an eye toward security and privacy rights
The Utah Department of Corrections is dedicated to transparency. We’re supported by taxpayers and we know they deserve to see how we fulfill our mission to manage offenders. But we also must maintain public safety, and this includes the safety and security of our operations and the privacy of everyday residents, staff and offenders.
Recently, the department has come under scrutiny in news reports for records requests that were either heavily redacted or denied upon request. Stories have claimed that the department is not transparent and suggested that we are intentionally covering up records.
Actually, our practices stem from Utah law. In enacting the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), the Legislature recognized two constitutional rights: 1) the public’s right of access to information concerning the conduct of the public’s business; and 2) the right of privacy in relation to personal data gathered by governmental entities.
The Legislature also recognized that there are circumstances where it is in the public’s interest for a government agency to restrict access to certain records and information, such as where the release of information would jeopardize public safety or the security of a correctional facility. (See Utah Code § 63G-2-102).
The second-to-last thing we want as state employees is to withhold information that should be accessible to the public; however, the last thing we want to do is release information that would compromise our efforts to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations, and protect the safety of officers, offenders and the public.
It’s a true balancing act.
Here’s some insight on our processes and why recent records released to the media may have been redacted or initially denied:
When we receive a public records request, we must determine if the information in the record is classified under GRAMA.
● Private information — such as medical records, for example — can typically only be released to the subject of the record or their designee.
● Controlled information is found only in mental health records and is typically only released to a mental health professional who provides the state with certain assurances, limiting further disclosure.
● Protected information, including information that would interfere with ongoing investigations, jeopardize somebody’s life or safety or threaten the safety and security of Utah’s correctional facilities, is typically not released to the public.
This is why the department regularly redacts information from government records: to protect privacy interests, to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations and to protect the safety of officers, offenders and public citizens.
The department’s GRAMA staff must be careful in fulfilling their duties. Once information is released, there’s no getting that information back. And the kinds of information the department’s GRAMA staff handles on a regular basis could subject Utahns to substantial bodily harm or death if released publicly.
Sometimes those classifications are clearly defined under GRAMA, such as a person’s medical records or a public employee’s home address. Other times, a records officer must exercise his or her best judgment to decide whether broader provisions of GRAMA apply, such as the provision that classifies information as private if its disclosure would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” (See Utah Code § 63G-2-302(2)(d).
As such, it’s not uncommon for a member of the department’s GRAMA staff to err on the side of caution in classifying and redacting information.
For this reason, the state has a straightforward and robust process in place to appeal redactions. If a requester or their legal counsel believes information has been incorrectly redacted from records produced to them, the requester has the opportunity to have those redactions reviewed, first by an executive officer from the department, and then by outside entities like the State Records Committee and the Utah District Court.
We understand that this process can be lengthy. With that said, the UDC Administrative Services Bureau and the Communications Office will initiate a review this month to determine if there is a better way to review and respond to GRAMA requests that does not compromise our efforts to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations, and protect the safety of officers, offenders and all Utahns.
Brian Nielson is executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections.