There are times when the system works exactly how our Founding Fathers envisioned it to work.
We had a client, let’s call him Henry. Henry was in a lot of trouble because he had not reported to the Utah Courts for going on 3 years, even though he was supposed to have been doing just that. You see, when someone has been arrested, and is then sentenced to serve a period of probation, they must fully comply with the terms of their probation. If they don’t, Utah Code § 77-18-1 allows for their probation to be revoked.
Once probation is revoked, Utah Code § 77-18-1(12)(e)(iii) says that the individual shall be sentenced or the original sentence shall be imposed. Henry was originally sentenced to 365 days of jail, but it was suspended, which meant so long as he could stay out of trouble, and comply with the terms of probation, that part of the sentence would merely hang over his head, then go away completely.
Because he had not complied with his probation by not reporting, he had a warrant for his arrest, but had not been picked up. Every day he’d wait for the “shoe to drop”, which meant his heart would skip a beat every time his phone or doorbell rang. During the almost 3 years that the warrant was outstanding Henry was not building a criminal enterprise, or going on a law-breaking rampage; rather, he was seeking to better his life. In fact, he was at a University and making excellent grades, too. He was praised by his professors and was being encouraged to explore a graduate degree in his field. He was also attending counseling, working, and genuinely trying to build the life that he has always hoped for.
But, as it always does, the day of reckoning came and he was picked up on the warrant. When someone is picked up on a warrant, Utah courts will schedule a bench warrant hearing – and that can take days or even weeks. The hearing is basically used as an explaining time, a time where the individual who was picked up can tell the judge where they have been, and why they showed the court “contempt”, which means “disrespect”. After speaking with Henry, he decided to come clean to the judge and present the body of work that he’d produced during the time when he did not report to the courts.
With the help of his loyal friend, we assembled letters from professors and psychologists, academic transcripts, and verification of continued enrollment. We knew it would be a hard sell because of his non-compliant history.
Before court, we spoke with prosecutor and explained the situation, and presented to him the educational documents for his review. Blessedly, the prosecutor said he would not object to having the client’s probation reinstated and allow him to serve a term of probation, as opposed to almost a year in the county jail. In other words, the client had made a big mistake by ignoring some of his legal obligations, but he came prepared to show his good side, too. Showing up prepared is key.
The prosecutor’s agreement proved to be vital in achieving the result we wanted. Henry’s case was finally called and the judge allowed us to speak. We explained to the court a brief procedural history of the case and then went over all the good things that our client had done. The judge was impressed, but not totally satisfied. In fact, he said something along the lines of, “Well, you can’t simply avoid the courts for 3 years, do some good things, and then expect everything to be ok.”
He was right, you can’t, but justice required something different in this case. After Henry had done so many things right, too!
The judge asked the prosecutor for his thoughts, and the prosecutor supported our position because of all the good things that our client had done and the changes he was making in his life – you see, you can never forget the human side of people. The judge then asked when Henry’s summer classes were to begin. Then, he flipped through the calendar, and said that our client would have to do more jail time, but would be released in time to attend his summer classes. He added that Henry would be placed on a zero tolerance probation, but would also be allowed to return to the life that Henry was beginning to build, instead of having to leave it all behind because of incarceration. The system got it right.
The judge could have easily, and within the parameters of the law, decided to lock Henry up for almost a year, but he didn’t. The prosecutor could have opposed our position, but he didn’t. They didn’t because they saw change and encouraged it. They made a just decision and truly acted in a manner that is within complete accordance with what the justice system is about. It is not designed to be entirely penal, but to give people a chance to make change.
Just a reminder that the system can and does work fairly in many situations.
Kyler Ovard and Greg Smith of Greg Smith and Associates