When auditors began looking into the tens of thousands of Utah search warrants missing from a federal database, they found a state system inept at sharing data.
That, they wrote in a legislative audit release Tuesday, begged more questions about the ways Utah’s criminal justice system shares data with police, judges, prosecutors and others. So, auditors looked into that, too.
Their review found similar problems persist across systems. This hinders judges from making appropriate pretrial release agreements and prosecutors from filing charges. Those systems also potentially allow convicted felons to work where they’re prohibited and put police and the public in danger because officers can’t determine that person’s criminal history.
“We believe the poor flow of information is hindering Utah’s criminal justice system from achieving its goals to reduce crime and help offenders become more productive members of society,” auditors wrote.
The audit found that often this sort of data is “siloed” in individual databases, and kept up to their individual standards, making the information difficult to share with others.
Auditors recommended that lawmakers created a central framework to seamlessly link databases.
A larger problem
The audit began when the U.S. Marshall’s approached lawmakers about the state reporting an “extremely low number of its warrants” to the national database.
In 2016, less than 1% of the Utah’s nearly 194,000 warrants — only about 1,600 — were reported to the National Crime Information Center, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported.
“The gravity of this underreporting is that the vast majority of individuals wanted on felony and severe misdemeanor offenses in the State of Utah could evade the consequences of their behavior by simply crossing state lines,” auditors wrote.
Auditors gave the example of a person with a violent criminal history who was wanted on a warrant for sexual abuse of a child. That person’s warrant wasn’t in the NCIC database — something various criminal justice agencies searched for nearly 40 times before he was arrested on accusations of child abuse, kidnapping and assault in Colorado.
If the warrant had been in the database, the auditors wrote that person could have been arrested before he committed those crimes.
Yet, in addition to the warrant issues, auditors also looked into other concerns they’d heard about “nonexistent or ineffective communication” between criminal justices departments and agencies in the state.
In one instance, auditors noted that a convicted murderer and rapist — Jayden Sterzer — was released before he should have been because of a lack of communication between agencies.
“When information is not shared between criminal justice agencies, operational effectiveness suffers, policies lack precision, and accountability weakens,” auditors wrote. “Communities and officers are better protected when criminal justice partners share information with one another.”
Utah doesn’t have a unified criminal justice information system because the system, as a whole, is decentralized, according to the audit. Federal, state and local agencies are involved in different parts — and it’s been that way for a long while, auditors wrote.
For example, there are about 130 local law enforcement agencies, 24 county jails, 29 county prosecutors offices and various state agencies, like the Department of Corrections, Board of Pardons and Parole and the Department of Safety.
And many have created their own information system that works for their needs, auditors said.
“While the administration of criminal justice is decentralized, the information systems of criminal justice do not have to be,” according to the audit.
The seven criminal justice agencies that responded to the audit — including the Department of Corrections, Department of Public Safety, the Board of Pardons and Parole and the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office — generally agreed with the audit’s suggestions.
Sevier County Sheriff Nathan J. Curtis wrote in response, “As a deputy, I was sometimes given very little information, or no information, while responding to a call. It was difficult at best to know exactly what I was respond to and there were times I would have changed my response had I have access to better and more reliable information.”
This story is developing and will be updated.