Utah Citizens File Suit Alleging ‘Willful Misconduct and Gross Negligence’ by Parole Authorities

Utah Citizens File Suit Alleging ‘Willful Misconduct and Gross Negligence’ by Parole Authorities

By Doug Wyllie

When the average American thinks of Utah, things that may come to mind typically include the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Great Salt Lake. The sports fan will recall Merlin Olsen, Stockton-to-Malone, and the Winter Olympics. The “foodie” will dream of Pastrami Burgers, Funeral Potatoes, and Fry Sauce.

One is not immediately given to contemplation of crime, criminals, or the Utah Department of Corrections, but citizens of the Beehive State certainly are—and at present they’re doing so more frequently and more deeply than is common.

That’s probably because nearly a dozen Utah citizens have filed a 47-page lawsuit in Third District Court alleging “willful misconduct and gross negligence” at the Department of Corrections (DoC), Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P), and the Board of Pardons and Parole.

The Court Filing

Plaintiffs in the suit—comprised largely of family members of crime victims—assert that the AP&P and DoC have allowed violent offenders to be inappropriately released on parole, resulting in the violation of innocent victims’ constitutional rights.

Those plaintiffs’ family members were either abducted, sexually assaulted, murdered, or some combination of the above because the AP&P and DoC allowed dangerous offenders loose on the street like Toecutter’s gang on Highway 9, sector 26.

The filing asserts that the AP&P sought to hide their abovementioned misconduct in a cover-up by “regularly, fraudulently, and willfully” fabricating evidence, intentionally “filing false and/or misleading reports” and actively attempting to “conceal and mislead the public about its inability to keep track of parolees.”

Moreover, AP&P Director Dan Blanchard, former Utah DoC Executive Director Mike Haddon, and current DoC Executive Director Brian Nielson were specifically named in the lawsuit

Interestingly, of the three only Blanchard remains in his office.

According to KUTV-TV News, Haddon stepped down from his position in late 2020, just days after a report revealed that more than 1,100 state prison inmates had been infected with COVID-19.

According to KJZZ-TV News, Nielson announced his retirement from Utah DoC soon after the recent suit was brought—his departure will be effective May 15th.

Neither is a good look.

The Gold Shield

The basis of the lawsuit lies in the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which became law in 2015 when then-Governor Gary Herbert signed the so-called “Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments” in Utah HB 348.

More specifically, the complaint says that since 2018, the Utah State Prison has released “multiple individuals under the direction of the JRI program who should not have been released because of the ‘risk or a threat to the community.’ These individuals were violent offenders who did not qualify for this program, or committed offenses for which their parole should have been terminated.”

The Utah DoC website says that the JRI aligns with the belief that the “criminal justice system is moving toward incarcerating only individuals who pose a risk or a threat to the community and treating those who struggle with addictions but otherwise pose little or no danger to our neighborhoods.”

Through its new sentencing guidelines and an “expanded definition of jail time” the DoC says that the “expectation is that JRI will reduce our incarceration and recidivism rates, resulting in savings for taxpayers.”

If by “savings” they meant lives, the JRI quite clearly flawed. In fact, the JRI has been nothing more than a proverbial “gold shield”—gleaming and beautiful in martial ceremony, but unwieldly and ineffective in practical use.

The Poison Pen

Law enforcement officials have—unsurprisingly—been vocal critics of the JRI. One of the most outspoken—and well-spoken—is John Huber, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah who was in office when JRI was implemented.

In 2020, Huber penned an opinion column for the Salt Lake Tribune in which he wrote, “Although sold to the public as a way to ensure that taxpayer resources focus on incarcerating “dangerous criminals,” in practice, JRI has resulted in too many dangerous and prolific criminals serving less prison time. With insufficient treatment resources and monitoring by probation and parole officials, they are soon back out on the streets re-victimizing society.”

Huber said in his op-ed that those crimes vary from dangerous drugs, gangs, child exploitation, and domestic violence.

A group of people from the so-called “prison reform” movement fired back in an op-ed of their own, saying that Huber’s “easy and overused tool of using anecdotes” to decry and disparage the effects of the JRI “does not reflect an accurate picture of Utah’s efforts to protect public safety and ensure the rights of Utahns.”

The authors—Utah Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice Executive Director Kim Cordova, Utah Indigent Defense Commission Director Joanna Landau, Utah Sentencing Commission Director Monica Diaz, and Utah Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice Director Ben Peterson—said also, “There is no objective evidence to suggest that public safety has been impacted negatively by the reduction of the number of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses.”

Undaunted, in 2021 Huber told KUTV News, “The data that they use to justify JRI in its initiation and its maintenance is highly suspect. It’s as though they’re looking at bar graphs with one eye open and one eye squinted to try and shade the reality.”

Both “sides” can probably find ample fodder supporting their position in a182-page report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General—and submitted to the Utah State Legislature in October 2020—on the measurable effectiveness of the JRI.

The report—dubbed A Performance Audit of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative—says in part that the number of “chronic drug offenders” in Utah has nearly tripled since the “reform efforts” were put in place and that the recidivism rate for “low-level drug offenders” jumped from 29% in 2013 to 37% in 2018.

In fact, the report said further, “Some of the county sheriffs and county prosecutors we interviewed said that JRI has created a disincentive for drug offenders to seek treatment.”

In addition, the report said that “while JRI has helped reduce Utah’s prison population, county sheriffs have expressed concern that the reforms have also led to an increase in their county jail populations. The increase, they said, was caused by changes to the sentencing guidelines…”

The Cleric’s Quote

French cleric and statesman Cardinal Richelieu once famously said, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

The JRI has in it far more than six lines, and within them, countless more damnable elements upon which one can hang blame for regrettable and avoidable victimization of innocents.