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Tremonton, UT — Bear River, Utah resident Rex Iverson, 45, died in the Box Elder County Jail on January 23 after being incarcerated for his failure to pay an ambulance bill. A deputy arrested him on a $350 bench warrant issued by the justice court on December 29. He was found unresponsive in his cell by a detention deputy a few hours after being arrested.

“We go to great lengths to never arrest anybody on these warrants,” Box Elder County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dale Ward told the Ogden Standard-Examiner. “The reason we do that is we don’t want to run a debtors’ prison. There is no reason for someone to be rotting in jail on a bad debt.”

Over the past three years, reports the Standard-Examiner, thirteen people have been arrested and jailed on civil bench warrants of the kind that resulted in Iverson’s fatal incarceration. Roughly half of those arrests arose from civil judgments obtained by government agencies, the rest from private debts. Apart from Iverson, all of those thus imprisoned were released within 12 hours after posting bail or making a promise to appear in court.

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Iverson had no means to pay bail, or his $2,376.92 bill with the Tremonton City Ambulance service. City treasurer Sharri Oyler said that an attempt was made to garnish Iverson’s wages “but he didn’t have a job, that we knew of.”

Debtors’ prisons were formally outlawed more than a century ago. They are nonetheless ubiquitous, and highly profitable for people wired into the corporate prison-industrial complex.

“How can you get blood out of a turnip?” asks Josh Daniels of the Lehi, Utah-based Libertas Institute, a libertarian think-tank. “The thing about going to jail, your time does not pay your debt…. A person should be obliged to pay, but putting him in jail doesn’t solve the problem.”

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Iverson’s unnecessary death has re-focused attention on Utah’s “justice courts,” which were lambasted in a report issued last October by the Sixth Amendment Center, an advocacy group promoting reforms in the indigent defense system. As with similar judicial (in this case, the appropriate term might be “quasi-judicial”) bodies in other states, Utah’s “justice courts” exist to monetize misery, rather than to carry out due process.

In Utah, most petty offenses are tried before “justice courts,” and many – perhaps most – of the judges in those courts are staggeringly unqualified: They are appointed from a pool of applicants by a six-member panel that uses selection criteria less rigorous than the admissions standards for DeVry University. No law degree or legal experience is necessary to serve as a Justice Court judge; in fact, any city resident with a GED and an advocate on the municipal panel would qualify.

More than 62 percent of defendants statewide “are processed through Utah’s justice courts without a lawyer,” points out the Sixth Amendment Center. Under relevant Supreme Court precedents, this constitutes an “actual denial of counsel” in violation of constitutional guarantees.

During the time frame examined by the Sixth Amendment Center, “defendants were arraigned and subsequently sentenced … to jail time or suspended sentences without any defense attorney present” by justice courts in every Utah jurisdiction except for Salt Lake City and County. In addition, “it is the practice of many justice courts to have prosecutors meet with unrepresented defendants to attempt to resolve the case prior to the defendant appearing before the judge. In others, the opportunity to meet with the prosecution is offered as though it is a chance to consult with an attorney who is looking out for the defendant’s interests.”

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Some of the Utah bodies described as “justice courts” are almost impossible to recognize as “courts” within the American definition of the term:
“In many justice courts there are no prosecutors present and there are also no defense attorneys present. This leaves justice court judges responsible for all sides of the adjudicative process. Having judges judging, negotiating pleas, and advising defendants all at once creates a criminal process that is, in a word, non-adversarial.”

Other appropriate single-word descriptions would be “Surrealistic,” “inexcusable,” and “illegitimate.” This is especially true when the “judge” presiding over this incestuous burlesque of due process might be a high school drop-out who earned a GED with a D-minus average but was appointted to the position on the basis of family connections.

The crowning obscenity in this system is the fact that because these bodies are no courts of record (no official transcripts are kept of the proceedings), the rulings imposed by the be-robed ignoramuses cannot be appealed. Instead, a defendant has to file a de novo review in a distract court. Most of the hapless people summoned before the justice courts are poor, indigent defendants deprived of legal counsel to assist them in filing for that review – and devoid of the financial means to do so in any case.

As a result, Utah’s “justice court” system is a conviction mill.

“In 2013, there were 79,730 total misdemeanors and misdemeanor DUI cases head in all justice courts statewide,” observes the Sixth Amendment Center report. “Only 711 of such cases were reviewed de novo in all district courts combined (an appellate rate of 0.89 %). Further still, a de novo review can never change the underlying systemic flaws that resulted in the denial of the right to counsel in the first place.”

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A bill currently before the Utah Legislature (HB 160) would require justice court judges to have law degrees. Raising the professional standards of the functionaries who serve as intake officers and revenue-gatherers for the state’s punitive apparatus won’t solve the systemic problems, however – such as the routine denial of critical due process rights and the lack of an appeal mechanism. Unless those elements are repaired, it would be better to destroy the “justice court” system root and branch – before it kills again.

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