By Caleb Larkin
Capital West News
SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah legislator is sponsoring a bill to change the information available to judges prior to determining a sentence in domestic violence cases.
“The bill’s amendments create a balance of quick decisions and correct sentencing,” said bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, at Wednesday’s Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee meeting. “It is intended to create a pause in the criminal justice system.”
SB59 will modify the conditions for a defendant to enter a plea of guilty or no contest. That is, both the prosecutor and judge must review the defendant’s criminal history report before a judge can agree to either plea.
“What we have essentially done is copied the language for DUIs and made it applicable to domestic violence cases. It has worked well for DUIs and it just made sense to apply it to domestic violence cases,” Weiler said. “I think that our justice system operates at the very best when the judges have all the information that they need.”
From 2010 to 2014, 110 domestic violence cases in Utah resulted in a fatality. One in five women in Utah report experiencing intimate relationship violence during their lifetime, and over 90 percent of the abusers were victims themselves at some point in their lives.
“This is a big problem,” a tearful victim of domestic violence from Logan, Utah, said during the committee meeting. The woman had moved to Utah from another state to escape the abuse, but her husband soon followed.
At trial, the judge issued a mild punishment having not receiving the records of previous abuse prior to sentencing. These new procedures would also require judges to review court records from other states before sentencing a defendant.
“This bill is a victim’s bill. It is so judges can get the information they need to make the best decision,” said Marlesse Jones, a Layton city prosecutor who supports the bill. “We have to remember these cases are only snapshots of what’s going on in that relationship. The reports will help tell the full story. We’re talking about protecting the rights of victims and the rights of the defendants.”
Donna Kelly, a domestic violence and sexual assault resource prosecutor, emphasized the importance of allowing a victim’s presence at the prosecution. “Many times the victims just want to be heard. Being present can be a healing process for the victims,” she said.
The bill’s amendments came about following a standard review of procedures by the Utah Sentencing Subcommittee.
“The bill is not designed to undermine judges. We are just trying to help them get the information they need to keep doing the great job they are already doing,” said Jones. “We have a responsibility to constantly reevaluate and improve the process any way we can.”
After making a minor addition to include pending charges in the criminal history report, the committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
Weiler does not believe there will be much opposition to the bill. “Who can be opposed to a judge having all the relevant information they need to make a sentencing? It’s just common sense,” he said.