MANTI—The Sanpete County court calendar is packed, the caseload in the county attorney’s office has doubled in one year, and taxpayers are bearing a greater burden than other counties, primarily because the county is home to a state prison.
While Sanpete County benefits from employment at the prison, the prison puts a financial burden on county government because inmates are considered Sanpete County residents no matter where they came from.
If an inmate commits a felony while incarcerated, the county attorney prosecutes the crime with no financial assistance from the state.
Prisoners typically have no income, which they must be assigned public defenders. The county has to pay the defense costs as well. In recent years, payments to defense attorneys, most of whom practice on the Wasatch Front, have exceeded $100,000 per year.
The Sanpete Messenger analyzed court calendars for one week in November and one week in December in 2018, 2019 and 2021.
Total cases for the November weeks (cases from the community as well as prison) went from 34 in 2018, down to 23 in 2019, but up to 62 in 2021.
In November 2018, only three cases cropping up in the sample week were from the prison. In November 2019, there were two cases on the calendar from the prison. But in a sample week in November 2021, 18 case out of the 62 total, or nearly 30 percent, were from the prison.
The sample weeks from December also showed a trend toward more total cases. The one-week count for selected weeks in December went from 30 in 2018 to 43 in 2019 to 46 in 2021.
Prison cases went from two in 2018 to 10 in 2019 but dropped back to five in 2021.
However, when the Messenger combined the total cases for selected weeks in November and December, the trend toward an increased prosecutorial caseload was clear.
Total cases in the selected November and December weeks in 2018 came to 64. There were just five prison cases in those weeks, so prison cases accounted for just 7.8 percent of total cases.
In 2019, there were 66 cases for the two weeks, including 12 prison cases. So prison cases represented 18.1 percent of total cases.
By 2021, the total case count had risen to 108. Prison cases accounted for 21.2 percent, or more than one in five of those cases.
“It’s worse if it’s a murder or other major crime (at the prison),” Daniels said. “Then we have to pay the cost of expert witnesses, lab costs and other extraordinary expenses.”
The county attorney’s office is currently prosecuting three murder cases arising from the prison, one of which is scheduled to go to a jury trial on Feb. 28.
Last year, the Sanpete County Commission approved the addition of a third attorney in Daniels’ office to help handle the workload.
More help may be on the horizon. Utah Sen. Darren Owens (R-Fountain Green) is sponsoring a bill that would require that prisoner prosecution expenses be charged to the county where the inmate resided prior to sentencing.
For instance, if the inmate’s last residential zip code was in Salt Lake County, if he was sentenced in Davis County, and then incarcerated in Sanpete County, defense costs would be charged to Salt Lake County.
Daniels thinks other counties are likely to object because they’re now getting a free ride. “Something needs to be done,” he said. “This current situation is grossly unfair to Sanpete County.” He said he hoped Gov. Spencer Cox will get behind the legislation.