The three candidates for the vacant Cache County Attorney position fielded questions from the Cache County Council on Tuesday during a specially set meeting.
Criminal deputy attorneys Dane Murray and Jacob Gordon and chief civil deputy attorney John Luthy answered a series questions about their vision for the office, how to balance civil and criminal duties, their plans should they not be accepted for the position, and their views on Utah’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
First to interview was Murray, who spoke to the role of county attorney in overseeing criminal and civil matters, the importance of surrounding oneself with experts and his philosophy of leading by example. Murray said his role as a prosecutor was very fulfilling and he wanted to remain involved in prosecution if selected as next county attorney.
“That’s something that is extremely rewarding to me, and I can’t see myself walking away from being a prosecutor,” Murray said. “I want to be able to help victims.”
When asked about JRI, Murray said it was “something our office has been fighting” since its beginning. He expounded on how the bill reclassified crimes as well as made changes to sentencing guidelines and restitution collection.
“It’s very important that we go fight those battles and try to roll those back,” Murray said. “We’ve seen a huge increase in crime across the country — it’s present here in Cache Valley and in Utah, too.”
In a recent case involving a second-degree conviction for child abuse, Murray said the sentencing matrix recommended probation and up to 90 days in jail because the defendant had no criminal history. For Murray, recommendations like these don’t “align with justice, in my opinion.”
“That’s what we were up against on second-degree felony child abuse,” Murray said. “That’s unacceptable to me. That’s something that I think we need to be putting pressure on the legislature to change those sentencing guidelines, especially on persons crimes.”
Second to the podium was Gordon, who said his vision was to see county business and prosecutions move forward “in the best way possible.” Gordon said he would balance civil and criminal matters by relying on the attorneys in the office.
“We have a great group of prosecutors who know what they’re doing, who are reasonable in their judgement, and I would allow them space to do their work and provide advice and counsel to them when they need it,” Gordon said.
For the civil side, Gordon said he would, again, rely on civil attorneys while also working to be as knowledgeable as possible.
“I would do as I have done in the criminal realm, and that is when I have questions, I go to the people that know,” Gordon said. “And then I throw myself into research and try to learn as much as I can about any given subject.”
When asked about JRI, Gordon said he had “complex” thoughts on the initiative.
“We should never be satisfied with the status quo. The criminal justice system is made up of people, and as people we are inherently flawed — which means we should always be striving to be better,” Gordon said, explaining JRI was a “worthy pursuit” that could have been executed better. “I don’t agree with all of it. I agree with the goal of making the criminal justice system better.”
For Gordon, the emphasis on rehabilitation and counseling is “a great thing” he observed while working with the “brilliant” drug court program.
“JRI, in some ways, threw a wrench in that,” Gordon said, explaining the lessened severity of drug crimes resulted in a lack of incentive for defendants to participate in drug court.
Rehabilitation is a long road, Gordon said, and JRI “hampered our efforts.”
“Getting people to buy in and have that motivation to change their lives was hard after JRI was enacted,” Gordon said, but reiterated his position on rehabilitation. “It’s not a solution to just put people in jail or in prison.”
Gordon also spoke to the creation of a county justice court and to providing more information to the residents regarding what the Attorney’s Office is doing with their tax dollars.
Luthy addressed the council as the final candidate. For Luthy, his vision for the prosecutorial side was “to largely stay the course” instead of implementing any drastic changes.
“(Former county attorney) James Swink talked to me a number of times about his theory, that he called the ‘broken windows theory,’” Luthy said, explaining if you consistently prosecute low-level crimes, or the “broken windows,” there will be a subsequent reduction in larger crimes. “I’d subscribe to that same theory.”
However, Luthy enumerated some things he wanted to implement on the civil side of the attorney’s office like combing through and updating county code, addressing road issues and facilitating training on legal issues in the county.
When asked about JRI, Luthy said he was a believer in the criminal justice system and the important work that law enforcement and prosecutors do, but there were areas for potential reform.
For example, due to shortcomings in the mental health system, Luthy said the criminal system has to deal with more mental health issues than it’s equipped to handle. Luthy said he would like to see law enforcement doing “less mental health work.”
He also said reforms could be appropriate in DUI cases involving serious injuries or death where the defendant is immediately released on bail.
Each candidate said they would remain in their current roles if not selected for the position.
Murray and Gordon both spoke to the importance of the county attorney being available to colleagues and present in the office — something they expressed may have been a problem in the past.
Luthy expressed his desire to create a more robust civil system to proactively address problems instead of reacting as issues arise.
County Chair Gina Worthen said the new county attorney would be chosen during the council meeting on Aug. 10, and the selected candidate would be sworn in the following day.