SALT LAKE CITY — The streets could be teeming with lawyers if an effort to bring a national criminal justice training center to Salt Lake City proves successful.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller, the University of Utah law school, the National District Attorneys Association and others are collaborating to champion a new facility to train state and local prosecutors and public defenders from across the country.
"It would be a huge step for Utah if we're able to pull it off," Miller said. "There's still quite a few steps that need to take place."
One of those steps — and it's a big one — is getting $50 million from the federal government to construct a building and run the program. The Department of Justice is considering putting it in its 2012 budget. The funds will not be an earmark or authorization, according Sen. Orrin Hatch's office.
A specific site hasn't been identified, but U. law school dean Hiram Chodosh said the preference is to "co-locate" with the law school.
Scott Burns, executive director of the district attorney's association, anticipates 8,000 to 10,000 lawyers from around the country would travel to Utah annually for weeklong instruction from some of the top lawyers in the country.
"It's boot camp for prosecutors," he said. "For prosecutors, it's a life-changing experience. It can't be duplicated. That would hold true with legal defenders, too."
Project supporters say it would be a huge economic boon to the city, rivaling or perhaps exceeding the annual Outdoor Retailer expo, which generated $33.4 million between the summer and winter shows this year.
Salt Lake City beat out several other cities to get the district attorney's association on board with the proposal.
"It just seemed to be a natural partnership," said Jim Reams, president of the association based in Washington, D.C. "The more we talked about it, the more realistic it seemed."
Currently, the federally funded National Advocacy Center in Columbia, S.C., provides training for government prosecutors using faculty arranged through the district attorneys association.
But while the training budget for federal prosecutors has increased to $15 million this year, it has plummeted to about $500,000 for those on the state and local level. Within a year the South Carolina facility will be limited to federal attorneys, leaving a void for county and district attorneys who handle nearly 98 percent of all prosecutions nationwide.
"It's a huge gap and we're trying to fill it," Chodosh said.
Hatch said he is working with the Justice Department to develop a training curriculum for district attorneys and public defenders.
What makes Utah's proposal unique is the inclusion of public defenders, who Chodosh said don't have a comparable national training program. Having both defense attorneys and prosecutors in the same center would create opportunities for dialogue and exchanges "that we think could help our (criminal justice) system immeasurably."
Chodosh said the chance for error — sending an innocent person to jail or setting a criminal free — diminishes with professional training. "We all share a common goal of making the system as strong as it can be," he said.
Burns, a former Iron County attorney, hopes the Justice Department will annually fund $10 million each for training public defenders and local prosecutors, an amount he said isn't unreasonable given the amount set aside for federal attorneys.
Reams, who toured the city in September with other district attorneys, said he hopes to have the program up and running in January 2012, even if that means leasing an existing building. "Whether we achieve that or not remains to be seen," he said.
Should the Justice Department budget for the project, it would be subject to open bids. Miller said having the district attorneys association in Salt Lake City's corner gives it big advantage over other potential bidders.
"We'll have to compete, but we're confident we can be competitive," said Miller, who leaves office in January but said she intends to continue working on the project.
Hatch spokesman Mark Eddington said the senator is working with the Justice Department, the U. and Salt Lake Chamber to ensure Utah receives due consideration for the project.