More federal defendants could avoid prison under new program

  • By LINDSAY WHITEHURST Associated Press
  • Updated

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — More people charged with federal crimes in Utah could get treatment instead of prison under a new program designed to prevent repeat offenses by addressing the reasons why they commit crimes.

The program is aimed at defendants without long criminal histories or those struggling with substance abuse. People would have to plead guilty to charges before they enter the program. Participation is voluntary, and getting into the program is expected to be competitive.

If they complete the requirements successfully, defendants could see charges dismissed, or they could be put on probation rather than be sent to prison. People who fail will be sentenced under terms they agreed to before entering the program.

The program was designed by a team that included federal prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation agents and judges. It was approved this summer, and officials are expected to meet this month to select the first eight to 12 participants.

“I’m not talking about giving a break to the kingpins,” said U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber. “I’m talking about people on the fringe who … have a heroin addiction, have a meth addiction, and they’re just trying to get to their next fix.”

Defendants who are picked will be separated into two groups, one for people with little to no criminal history accused of crimes like credit card fraud or minor narcotics offenses.

The second group will be people whose behavior appears to be motivated by drug and alcohol problems facing allegations like mail theft or bank robberies not involving a gun. Some of them will likely have criminal histories.

The program will be overseen by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby. The defendants will be closely supervised and have to make regular appearances before the team of court authorities as well as being required to complete treatment for things like substance abuse, mental illness or education.

Their participation will last one to two years.

Huber said repeat offenders are costly for the court system and the community.

“If I don’t have to, I don’t want to prosecute someone two and three times over. That’s really a big investment of taxpayer resources on a problem that’s kind of a revolving door,” he said.

While Utah state courts have had a similar system for years, it’s a relatively concept in the federal system.

“The federal system has always been seen as very harsh,” said Greg Petersen, the probation officer in the fledgling program. “This is an opportunity for those people who are charged with federal crimes to get a little bit of a second chance.”

When it came to naming the program, Huber wanted something that would be a positive message in acronym form, so they came up with Utah Alternatives to Conviction Track or U-ACT.

As the court team put together the framework, they studied a similar program in federal court in California.

Some defendants won’t be eligible for the program, including those facing child pornography charges, people deeply involved with major fraud or narcotics distribution, those who could be deported or people accused of specific violent acts.

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