In Our Court

Justice Court group photo
A few team members of the SLC Justice Court, from left to right: Amy Comelatto, Curtis Preece, Tammy Shelton, Shelley Bilbrey, Alejandro Abonnanzieri, Shairise Bills

Customer service, efficiency help Salt Lake City win Utah’s 2016 Justice Court of the Year Award

It’s a Tuesday, 11:15 a.m., and Judge John Baxter has already worked through 76 criminal misdemeanor cases from the bench in just three hours.

“It was a light day,” said Baxter, the Presiding Judge of Salt Lake City Justice Court. He’s scrolling page after page of case files on his computer. Driving under the influence. Trespass. Theft of property. Public intoxication.

Baxter is one of 4.5 full-time judges and 35 additional employees at Justice Court. There are jury supervisors, managers of criminal court, small claims, and traffic sections. One person coordinates transportation of some 30 inmates a day from Salt Lake County Jail to court. From her desk in a small corner, Interpreter Coordinator Gabriela Garcia lines up interpreters of more than 40 languages for non-English speaking defendants.

Managing this operation takes constant attention to detail–including building public trust and moving nearly 55,000 cases a year quickly but thoroughly through the system. For its efforts, Salt Lake City’s court was recently honored by the Utah State Courts as 2016 Justice Court of the Year. Of 134 justice courts in the state, Salt Lake City’s is by far the largest and busiest. The award is based on positive public and employee questionnaires, evaluation of jury movement, disposition of cases, and overall efficiency.

Curtis Preece is Justice Court Administrator. Soft-spoken and tall, he walks the halls at 333 South 200 East with an easy gait. Preece brings a background in social work, corrections, and a Masters of Business Administration to a job he describes as essentially one of customer service.

“We work on efficiency, timeliness, showing the public respect, and on moving cases through the pipeline quickly but professionally,” he said.

Cities and counties throughout the state have established the courts to address Class B and C misdemeanors (as opposed to felonies, which live in Utah’s District Court system), violations of city ordinances, and small claims. Violations typically result in a fine and/or jail time, or an order of community service for the defendant.

“It is an honor to have our Justice Court employees recognized for their hard work and their ongoing commitment to treating people with respect and dignity,” said Mayor Biskupski. “The way this team interacts with people has a real bearing on how they view the justice process and the city.”

National and state justice court guidelines recommend that disposition of traffic cases take no more than three months; six months for criminal cases, and nine months for small claims court. Salt Lake City meets those guidelines at 94 percent, 85 percent, and 100 percent, respectively, Preece said.

This court is often a person’s first interaction with the justice system–whether to contest a traffic ticket, serve on a jury, or to face misdemeanor charges.

Presiding Judge Baxter was appointed 14 years ago after serving as Chief of Misdemeanors at the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association.

Fully half of his judges’ cases involve homeless defendants, most of whom also struggle with mental health or substance abuse challenges, Baxter said.

“We deal with all of the social problems of the capital city, every day. No one has the perfect solution, but nonetheless, our homeless population has to be attended to–even and including in court,” Baxter said.

Addressing homelessness with a new approach by scattering housing sites and by providing social services at these homeless resource centers is a top priority for Mayor Biskupski. The goal is for earlier and specific interventions to also help alleviate crime among the homeless community, as well.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice blasted many of the nation’s municipal courts for fattening city coffers by ordering fines for indigent defendants who had no hope of ever paying them. The report specifically criticized the court in Ferguson, Missouri, and linked the practice to fueling long-simmering tensions that contributed to a police officer killing of shooting of a black teenager and the riots that followed.

Preece emphasizes that in contrast to the Ferguson model, Salt Lake’s court has always sought out creative alternatives to slapping fines or jail sentences on those who truly can’t pay. “We feel a heartfelt dedication to be flexible here with court orders and to alternative sentencing of treatment programs and community service whenever possible. It’s the right thing to do.”

#MeetSLC

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