CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

New York City can learn from Utah about crime, says Davis County attorney

Jan 12, 2022, 5:36 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2022, 11:21 am

davis county prosecutor announces new conviction integrity unit...

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings announces the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit during a press conference at the Davis County Administration Building in Farmington on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Downplaying or halting prosecutions of lower-level crimes to focus on felonies in the name of criminal justice reform can backfire. Utah learned that lesson the hard way. 

Newly sworn-in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said the office will stop prosecuting people for theft of services, trespassing (unless it accompanies a stalking charge), aggravated unlicensed operation, routine traffic violations not accompanied by felony charges, obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest, and prostitution, according to Gothamist.

Bragg vowed instead to get tough on gun crimes and domestic violence. In a memo to staff, Bragg wrote: ” . . . reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm will make us safer. ”

Utah’s approach to criminal justice reform began with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative of 2015 and was put into action by House Bill 348.

In 2020, Utah saw a 44% increase in the number of homicides, according to the State Bureau of Criminal Identification. The state experienced 93 homicides that year, and a firearm was used in 67% of those killings, according to Deseret News.

Ask the expert

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings joins Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic on Dave & Dujanovic to discuss the uptick in violent crime.

Rawlings said the goal of JRI in 2015 was laudable — rehabilitating offenders and getting their lives back on track — but the funding component to enact the reform initiatives was missing.

“We reduced a lot of felonies to misdemeanors, some misdemeanors down to lower misdemeanors,” Rawlings said. “The idea was to try to help people basically not have such significant consequences but focus on treatment or rehabilitation. [But] the funding piece for the treatment and rehabilitation just didn’t materialize like it was supposed to have.”

He said the Legislature is touring different jurisdictions throughout the state to review and correct the justice reform legislation of 2015.

“The goal was good, the execution was poor,” Rawlings said.

Dave made the point that rapists, murderers, and armed robbers started their criminal history with lower-level offenses.

Rawlings agreed. “It’s a very rare case where someone goes from zero to 100,” he said. 

On lower-level misdemeanors escalating to felonies, Rawlings cited the example of prostitution leading to human trafficking.

“We call these misdemeanors-gateway crimes,” he said.

Did the crime but not the time

“The district attorney’s plan in Manhattan is to reduce crimes. We already did that here in Utah six years ago, and now we’re seeing the fallout,” Debbie pointed out. “A lot of these criminals are not serving to time, am I right?”

“We reduced consequences across the board,” Rawling said. “We didn’t fund the treatment like it was supposed to be. So basically, we’re pretty much giving them a pass — in large part that’s what happened in Utah.”

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New York City can learn from Utah about crime, says Davis County attorney