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SALT LAKE CITY — During his State of the Judiciary speech Monday, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant asked legislators to address three distinct issues of criminal justice reform, including the recommendation of a salary increase for judges.
Durrant said dwindling pools of well-qualified judge applicants have pushed the Elected Official and Judicial Compensation Commission to create a report that recommends an increase of judicial salaries over the next two years to draw more “high-quality, talented and thoughtful” judges to Utah.
“Now, it obviously has the air of self-interest for me to stand before you and say ‘amen’ to the committee’s recommendations,” Durrant said. “But I genuinely believe it is in the best interests of the citizens of this state as well. … To have the best judiciary, the kind of judiciary that the citizens of this state deserve, (the governor) needs a broader array of qualified applicants from which to choose.”
The report proposed an 18.7 percent increase over the next two years, which would bring the annual salary of the highest-paying judges, the Supreme Court justices, from $150,150 to $176,024, according to the report. The salary and benefit increase for all 114 judicial positions would calculate to roughly $4 million in annual ongoing costs, the report states.
Because criminal cases in Utah have decreased while the number of civil cases has gone up in recent years, it has become especially important to find judges who have experience in commercial and business law, Durrant said.
“Those who seek to become judges do so to serve the public, to give something back,” he said. “For these reasons, they are willing to serve at a financial sacrifice. But compensation remains important to attracting the best people.”
Durrant also urged legislators to consider the recommendations outlined in the "Justice Reinvestment Initiative" report, which the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice created upon request of Gov. Gary Herbert, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Durrant and other legislative leaders.
The report listed recommendations to make Utah a safer state by increasing efforts to reduce the rate of criminal relapse of released offenders. About 98 percent of people sent to jail or prison eventually re-enter society, Durrant said.
“When they then become productive, contributing, law-abiding members of society, our state is a better and safer place,” he said. “On the other hand, when upon their release they return to their criminal ways, our state is diminished and our citizens made less safe.”
Providing offenders with proper treatment, from substance abuse to mental health treatment, is the most important action legislators can take to break the cycle of recidivism, Durrant said.
Utah drug courts, which are designed for high-risk, high-need offenders, have seen great success, he said, but the courts do not have enough treatment slots to admit every qualifying defendant. More than 50 percent of those who could otherwise qualify aren’t admitted, Durrant said.
Along with the expansion of treatment programs, the report’s recommendations for criminal reform also include turning drug possession into a misdemeanor, and strengthening probation and parole supervision. There is new momentum to look at reforming the criminal justice system because lawmakers are considering a move of the Utah State Prison in Draper.
Durrant also urged legislators to consider a the bill sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, that would add a juvenile court judge to the 4th District and a bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, that would add a district court judge to the 5th District.
“Workloads have reached a point in these districts where our ability to resolve cases on a timely basis for the citizens of these counties is threatened,” Durrant said. “I would urge (lawmakers) to pass the necessary legislation to create these two judgeships.”