Being your representative has been so rewarding, interesting, humbling, and fun! It has also kept me extremely busy! Here is a brief overview of two things I have been working on. (Hopefully I can keep it short–it’s difficult when I feel passionately about something.)
Prosecutor Transparency and Oversight
Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system. They decide whom to prosecute, what to charge, whether to recommend freedom or incarceration before trial, whether to bargain for a plea and its conditions, and whether to dismiss a case altogether.
It surprised me to learn that despite the power prosecutors have, they have absolute immunity. Having great power combined with absolute immunity is completely counter to how we believe government should be set up. Their decisions have very little oversight, transparency, or accountability, yet these decisions completely alter the course of a person’s life, and a family’s life, for generations.
In addition to my own research on this issue, I have spent many hours in meetings with a variety of stakeholders, including prosecutors, public defenders, the ACLU, the Innocence Project, the courts, CCJJ (Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice), and District and County Attorneys. They have all been very generous with their time and knowledge, and their input and support has been incredibly helpful!
Some of the questions that I asked were, “Is prosecutorial power being abused in Utah? If so, in what ways? What are the biases, unconscious or otherwise, that are tainting our justice system? What steps should we take to address these issues?”
What I realized is that we have little to no usable data being gathered about ANY OF THIS!! WHAT?! One of the math classes I teach at UVU is Quantitative Analysis, which teaches critical thinking skills. Something I stress constantly to my students is to take the time to accurately define the problem; if you don’t know what you are trying to solve, it is next to impossible to find the best solution. With no data, there is no way to accurately define the problem.
The bill I am working on would require State, County, District, and City Attorneys to gather specific, defined data about every case they touch and submit it to CCJJ. The bill will provide for a dedicated full time employee at CCJJ to be a liaison between the state and the prosecutor’s offices, to help to get them up to speed and to compile the data. A working group made up of representatives of all stakeholders will help to interpret and report the data.
My hope is that this data will help us to define problem areas and create solutions that will address these problems. We will be able to see if our solutions are actually working. I will be presenting about my bill to the Interim Judicial Committee in September.
Agricultural and Open Lands Preservation
This is a very important issue as Utah continues to grow and land is being developed at a brisk rate. Here in House District 61, we have very little farmland left, but we do have some that I think Utah should take steps to preserve, if possible. There are a lot of good reasons for this, one being that when we are able to produce our own food, we can be self sufficient and not subject to the whims and prices of outside food sources.
Being a farmer is massive amounts of work for little financial security. No one can blame farm families for selling their land to developers. However, if a farm meets certain criteria and the owners would like to keep the land as agricultural, they can apply for a conservation easement. I love the approach of conservation easements that are instigated by the landowner and funded through local, state, and federal efforts. The role the state plays is to fund the LeRay McAllister Critical Lands Fund, which went unfunded for years before $3 million was appropriated this year.
Chosen applicants will sell the agricultural rights to their land–but not the land itself, they still own that–and receive about 65-70% of the market value. The bulk of the money comes from a federal conservation program, with more funds put in from the McAllister fund and local sources. The federal program will only help fund projects that have state and local funding, so it is important we do our part. This solution provides financial security to the family, protects the land from development, and helps to preserve our agricultural heritage and sustainability.
If you support this idea, please let other legislators know to vote to fund the McAllister fund. This is far more important than some of the other things we fund. (Find out more about the Quality Growth Commission and what they do here.)