Court comes to USCF in pilot program

It looked like a courtroom, complete with flags and the state seal.  There was a judge, prosecutors and a defense attorney. The defendant was brought in to face charges. It featured real pleas and real sentences.

Yet those facing incarceration didn’t have to wait to be transferred to prison. They were already there.

The courtroom had come to them.

For the first time in its short existence, the Utah State Correctional Facility was the location for a Third District Court session. Presided over by Judge Matthew Bates, 15 cases were heard in a pilot program to improve court efficiency.

“This is something new and we’re trying to figure out what cases we can take,” Judge Bates said to one defendant during the session Friday, December 15.

Held in a room usually reserved for Utah Board of Pardons and Parole hearings, the court session was a year in the making, said Brian Kenney, who was recently appointed the director of the UDC’s new Safety, Risk, and Standards Division.

“The goal is to streamline the process and reduce transports,” he said, noting that the day’s events eliminated the need to shuttle 15 offenders to a courthouse. “It’s getting more inmates in front of the court. And it’s 100 percent safer.”

All defendants were already incarcerated. These were charges they acquired while in custody or pending charges they had open.

Of the 15 cases, five resulted in guilty pleas, all misdemeanors.

When court wasn’t in session, downtime was spent talking about current events and who had the best breakfast that day.

Afterward, all parties held a debriefing to discuss what went well and what could be improved for the next one. Everything from what time to have incarcerated offenders ready to the configuration of the courtroom itself was examined for improvement.

And there will be a next time. The second event will take place January 12, with monthly hearings set through April. The docket will rotate between Bates and Judge Barry Lawrence.

All agreed that, for the first time out, it went smoother than anticipated.

“I think it was successful,” noted Kenney. “Now we have to refine the process.”