Trend toward lighter sentences affected Mellor outcome
Letter with petition reflects continued anger among some Fayette residents
By James Tilson
MANTI—Sanpete County attorneys felt they couldn’t get the sentence they really wanted in the Tracy Mellor public funds case because of recent changes in Utah sentencing guidelines.
Pointing to the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) in Utah in 2015, County Attorney Kevin Daniels said, “It changed the criminal justice system entirely.”
While many of the changes have been positive, one impact he views as negative is cases getting an “across-the-board reduction in recommendations.”
“The reduced sentences we are seeing are not the result of lenient judges, the reductions are a by-product of a change to the sentencing guidelines,” he said.
Daniels explained how he thought that reform in the criminal justice system often ran in cycles, calling it the “pendulum concept.” He said legislators will respond to calls for change in the criminal justice system by going from one extreme to the other.
“After the Reagan era, get-tough-on-crime changes resulted in much more severe punishments. Now the reforms are swinging to the other extreme of leniency,” he said.
While there has been a lot of opposition to people being incarcerated for long periods for drug possession, he said, all cases are getting much more lenient sentences, not just drug cases.
Mellor, the long-time Fayette town clerk and recorder, pleaded guilty to writing checks out of city funds to her husband’s business. Investigators said the thefts went back to at least 2009. She was charged with stealing $153,000. But she took other money that she couldn’t be charged with taking because the statute of limitations had run out on those thefts.
Knowing how sentencing recommendations were going lately, the County Attorney’s Office planned to ask for a one-year jail sentence. But when the pre-sentence report came from Utah Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P) with a recommendation of no jail time, Daniels said, “We were quite shocked.”
After seeing the low recommendation, Daniels and Assistant County Attorney Wes Mangum decided all they could realistically argue for was 60 days in jail. The court ultimately ordered 45 days.
Daniels said AP&P, using new sentencing guidelines, is routinely issuing lenient sentencing recommendations. He recalled the Mathew Malstrom case, in which an 18-year-old boy was convicted of stealing about $40,000 worth parts and weapons from Christensen Arms in Gunnison. The original recommendation was for only 45 days, with credit for time served. Daniels’s office argued for a lengthier jail term, and the court eventually sentenced Malstrom to serve 120 days in jail.
Daniels also recalled a sex crime in which the recommendation was for only 30 days in jail. Daniels argued that particular defendant needed to be sentenced to prison. In that particular case, the judge followed Daniels’ recommendation and not the presentence report.
Changes are taking place all over Utah, not just in Sanpete County. Daniels cited a Kane County case from 2017 in which a city treasurer was charged with embezzling public funds. In that case, which was tried by the Utah Attorney General’s Office, the defendant pleaded guilty to one count of a third-degree felony, not three felonies like Mellor pleaded to. The defendant wound up with a 30-day jail sentence.
Daniels said he knew that there was strong sentiment in the community regarding Mellor’s sentence, everything from people who wanted her to walk free to people who “wanted to give her the death penalty.” Daniels said he personally felt at least a year in jail was warranted.
Since her sentencing, the community atmosphere has not simmered down. An anonymous letter has been circulating around Fayette this week, and apparently was mailed to each of the 70 households in town, accusing various government officers and entities of “not caring about Fayette.”
The letter asks recipients, “Do you care about Fayette?” and invites them to make their opinions known to Judge Wallace Lee, Mellor’s sentencing judge.
Investigations of Fayette town government are not finished. Last week, the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office sent the results of its investigation into further misuse of public funds by people other than Mellor to the county attorney’s office for review.
Daniels said the investigation is “still in the process” and he expected to have a decision on whether to file charges within a couple of weeks.