SALT LAKE CITY — The state court system has set up a new accountability arm, responding to persistent data showing minority defendants are treated comparatively harshly in Utah.
Creation of the Office of Fairness and Accountability also stems from the nationwide social justice movement triggered by the death of George Floyd beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee May 25, a court spokesperson said Tuesday.
The Utah Judicial Council “had already considered it needed to address fairness with race and ethnicity and systemic bias in the system,” Administrative Office of the Courts spokesperson Geoff Fattah said.
“But they had just been in the discussion phase, and then the George Floyd stuff happened,” he said.
The new office’s charter says the entity will collect data on evidence of systemic bias on race and ethnicity.
“If those biases are identified they will make those recommendations” to the judicial council for action, Fattah said.
The office also will provide training on bias to judges and court staff, “training them on recognizing biases and preventing them from happening,” he said.
The office will coordinate its work with community-based and government organizations, including the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, or CCJJ.
The Utah Sentencing Commission, part of CCJJ, has said minority offenders were more likely to be sentenced to prison since major justice system changes were implemented in 2015.
Officials have been trying to determine how implicit biases may be creeping into arrests, prosecutions and sentences.
Sentencing Commission data showed 43.2% of people receiving new prison sentences in fiscal year 2017 were racial or ethnic minorities, up from 33.2% in 2015.
According to U.S. Census data, minorities make up 21% percent of the Utah population, including about 14% Hispanic and 1.5% Black.
In an October 2019 report, the sentencing commission examined the relationship between race-ethnicity and the severity of the pre-sentence recommendation.
“We find that Hispanics have an increased likelihood of receiving the most severe sentence recommendation in comparison to whites,” the report said.
The new fairness office’s charter says the Utah judiciary understands the public’s trust and confidence in the courts requires the courts to identify any causes of unequal treatment based on factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or gender.
“We understand we must take action to address inequities and hold ourselves accountable for equitable treatment for all,” the charter says.
The fairness office’s director will be a senior member of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Judicial Council’s July 9 announcement said.
Fattah said more details of the office will be worked out later.
“The name sounds great, but the devil will be in the details,” Utah Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said Tuesday of the Fairness and Accountability Office.
“Eradicating racism and bias from the system, that sounds like a nice platitude, but I don’t know what that means” in practice, Weiler said.
“This looks to me like a statement like so many others have put out about the George Floyd murder, which is fine,” he said.