Smart Justice Attorney Jason Groth explains how he promotes criminal justice legislation at the Utah Legislature.
Q: Where do you find ideas for new legislation?
[Jason Groth] First, we lean on the practical experience from experts within the criminal justice system, from attorneys to impacted persons to advocates. When they realize the barriers they face can’t be addressed on a case-by-case basis, they approach us about seeking broader legislative solutions. For example, this year’s prosecutor transparency bill (H.B. 288) was motivated by the fact that we know racial disparities exist within the criminal justice system, but we need better data about the drivers of those disparities.
Q: How closely do you work with lawmakers?
[JG] It depends. Sometimes we spend months debating policy points and crafting language that becomes legislation. Other times, a lawmaker will contact us a few weeks before the session begins, or even in the middle of it, to get our take on their bill. Most of the time, lawmakers aren’t looking for the “ACLU seal of approval,” but they recognize our expertise in key areas like criminal justice reform and free speech and want our feedback.
Q: Do lawmakers ever tell you, “I can’t believe I’m working with the ACLU?”
[JG]: When it comes up, I just reply, “I can’t believe I am working with you either, but this is a great bill. Let’s pass it.” It’s normal for the ACLU of Utah to collaborate with legislators on certain issues like criminal justice reform, and oppose them on other issues, like reproductive rights. That split happens all the time. But if we acknowledge our differences and still work together, we can get a lot more done.
Q: How much do you rely on your experience as a former public defender?
[JG] All the time. It helps me understand how new legislation and policies will impact what happens in the courtroom. For Utah-specific issues, I rely on allies like the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys to answer questions and check my hunches. But my legal experience allows me to speak broadly about criminal justice issues from bail practices to prosecutorial discretion in a meaningful way.
Q: How do you prepare to testify about a bill?
[JG] In an ideal situation, I meet with other stakeholders prior to a legislative hearing to develop an effective strategy. Because testimony is often limited to two minutes or less, you need to have a game-plan that emphasizes your side’s key points. For example, Rep. Stephanie Pitcher’s bail reform bill (H.B. 206) passed a Senate committee in the final minutes of a hearing because its supporters organized compelling testimony that overwhelmed the disjointed statements opposing it from the bail bond industry. Also, you might think that people focused on their phones during committee hearings are checking social media feeds, but it’s more likely they are sharing last-minute talking points and strategies with other people in the room.
Q: Do you ever make compromises to pass legislation?
[JG] Compromise is an integral part of legislative advocacy. Because most bills impact broad swaths of policy or regulation, a supporter might be unaware of downstream effects. For example, the prosecutor transparency bill originally required prosecutor offices to collect race and ethnicity data on the cases they pursue. But smaller offices lacked the capacity to handle this request, so we amended the bill to require county jails, which already collect this data, to do it instead. The bill remained effective, and we addressed opposition from smaller prosecutor offices.
…from the Spring 2020 Liberty Reporter