Juvenile judges to take adult cases in busy Utah courtrooms

December 30, 2019 GMT

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Judges from Utah’s juvenile justice system are preparing to help take on adult cases to relieve pressure on some of the state’s busiest courtrooms.

The judges next year will preside over an adult’s first court date and decide whether to sign paperwork granting short-term protective orders in Utah’s 3rd District Court, the Deseret News reports.

The initial hearings are primarily administrative, and a person rarely enters a plea or is sentenced. But the juvenile judges’ presence will help clear off casework in a district that includes Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties.

“Our state judges are very much pitch-in kinds of judges who simply want the best for the judiciary and the best for the people of Utah to move cases along in the most effective way,” said Paul Cassell, a legal expert at the University of Utah and a former judge.

The change frees up about two dozen judges in the 3rd District to focus elsewhere.

“Maybe that’s part of an effort to improve access to justice, by reducing the workload of some of the district court judges so they have more time to attend to some of these things,” Cassell said. “It wouldn’t necessarily foreshadow some radical transformation of either the juvenile court jurisdiction or the district court jurisdiction.”

Juvenile judges in Utah’s rural courthouses have long shared in the criminal caseload, helping out with bench trials and domestic violence cases, for example. But the teamwork has been rarer in the state’s urban northern corridor.

It’s a move to recalibrate as 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Renee Jimenez and her colleagues are freed up by recent reforms to Utah’s juvenile justice system.

A 2017 Utah law more than halved the share of kids and teens that end up in court. Most facing allegations like truancy and marijuana possession now enter into agreements with probation officers and don’t ever see a judge.

“We were super, super busy before, and now we’re busy,” Jimenez said. “But we’re using some of that time that we used to have on the lower level cases to do this as an exchange.”

Although a different realm, juvenile court is not considered the minor league for judges. It requires the same level of legal expertise and the pay scale is equal.

“In terms of being a judge and making decisions on the bench, the juvenile judges are every bit as qualified as a district court judge to do that,” said James Bauer, the 3rd District juvenile trial court executive.

Data from 2019 indicates there are too many juvenile judges in some districts. Yet Jimenez and Bauer said it’s not sure whether that trend will stay, and they don’t want to permanently rearrange the workload just yet.