A vast majority of criminal cases in the country are decided with a plea deal—an agreement between a prosecutor and the defendant. Typically, a defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lower charge or less harsh punishment — and one result is that a jury trial is no longer an option. (This is because a plea deal is actually a guilty plea by the defendant.)
While plea deals save both parties time and money, it does not require the government to prove an accused person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is why some, including Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, take issue with Utah’s heavy reliance on plea deals.
Because plea agreements are used so often in Utah’s criminal system, it makes sense to understand how they’re being applied. It’s important to know if the agreements are making communities safer or not, how different county’s diversion programs are working, and the differences between offers given to varying demographics of people.
The Utah Legislature recently passed House Bill 288, sponsored by Representative Marsha Judkins, which requires Utah prosecutors to collect and report information about their cases. This data is not just to keep the public informed, but more importantly, it will allow lawmakers and prosecutor offices to access a wealth of statewide data — which currently doesn’t exist — to enable them to use facts to better guide their decision making. It’s impossible to make data driven decisions without good information. But with the help of the bill, that all changes.
HB 288 requires prosecutors to collect information about the accused individual’s demographics, the charges brought against them, bail information, sentencing information, diversion program details, and more. Agencies must give this data to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) who will analyze the information and compile an annual report based on their findings. Legislators can then use this information to help guide their policy decisions.
It’s impossible to craft effective solutions for unknown problems, which is why this bill is so pertinent. This new information could reveal unknown issues within the prosecution phase of the criminal process, allowing prosecutors to take initiative to solve problems internally.
Information across the criminal justice system is generally lacking in most states, which is problematic. HB 288 provides a good step to look into the beginning phase of a person’s journey within the system, but it’s only the beginning in the effort toward increased transparency and data-driven problem solving. It is our goal to work alongside Utah’s criminal justice-related entities to continue moving forward with more data collection efforts.
Eventually, we hope to see a longitudinal database connecting each entity in the criminal justice system so that it’s possible to track progress and failures from a person’s initial entry all the way to their exit in order to better understand system outcomes. This summer, CCJJ will be starting this project by conducting comprehensive research on how disparate systems can collaborate with one another in the future to collect accurate, usable data. But for now, HB 288 is a great first step to evaluate and learn from.