Gauging HB 348 

Some consider penalty reduction bill a silver bullet for much-needed prison reform.

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House Bill 348 purged the state of a longheld criminal justice paradigm for how to deal with drug offenders. The state appeared to indicate with HB 348 that it wanted to move away from an absolutist approach of locking drug offenders up, and instead, make rehabilitation and addiction recovery the priority when dealing with drug offenses. Now in the wake of the bill's passing, pinpointing the effects of the legislation depends on who you ask.

The narrative for police has been difficult. Detective Greg Wilkings of the Salt Lake City Police Department says the bill is leaving dangerous individuals on the streets.

"They're trying to decriminalize the possession of these drugs to make it easier to get off these drugs. I understand that; I feel for that. That's a good noble reason to decriminalize [the offenses]," Wilkings says. "The problem is all the things that go along with being a user and all the crimes that result because of it. All the shoplifting, metal theft, robberies and burglaries—if it's not nailed down, they're stealing it to feed their habit.

To some in the Legislature, the bill has been viewed as a success and is serving as a gateway for further decriminalization such as State Bill 187, which passed in the 2016 general legislative session and reclassified a number of low-level offenses to simple infractions.

"We can change the world one life at a time by understanding that criminal justice is about more than punishing people who did naughty things," District 12 Senator Daniel Thatcher says. "[HB 348] has been a wild success. For the first time, our prison numbers went down."

Thatcher's claim about Utah's prison population holds true and speaks to the impulse behind the bill. In its official average monthly offender count, the Utah Department of Corrections reports that, as of October, the state's average prison population was 6,241 inmates. This number is down roughly 150 inmates from April, and 300 from November 2015, marking a 5-percent decrease in average population over a an 11-month span.

In theory, decriminalizing charges lessens criminal penalties, which decreases the flow of individuals going into jails, and, in turn, saves the state money that can then be spent on rehabilitative programs and services for offenders.

"There's a premise I'm working from that people are starting to come around to," Thatcher says. "This has been about a six-year effort for me. I hate the idea of threatening bigger penalties so people will accept plea deals."

This premise gained ground in 2015 when the Pew Charitable Trusts helped push HB 348 through the Legislature and into policy by way of an empirical examination of Utah's criminal-justice system. The study yielded predictions that boasted "the reforms"—HB 348, specifically—"[would] eliminate almost all projected prison growth over 20 years, save more than $500 million, and redirect nearly $14 million into evidence-based strategies to reduce recidivism."

The study cited Utah's growing prison population (according to the report, the state's prison population grew by 18 percent between 2004 and 2013 and was expected to grow 37 percent by 2034) and recidivism rate, which is defined as the likelihood an inmate will return to prison after being released for an initial offense, as grounds for the legislation.

"Because Utah is so strapped for cash, we don't experiment often," Thatcher says. "By getting this data we were able to push it through."

Right now, it appears the state's move toward decriminalization has helped lower prison populations. Going beyond that suggested relation, however, and drawing any kind of direct correlation between the two would be erroneous without a rigorous statistical backing. It looks like HB 348 is helping, but that's the most anyone can say.

Deciphering the bill's success, if any at all, looks to be ambivalent at best. Mary Jo McMillan, executive director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness (USARA), says what Wilkings and the rest of the force are seeing is an unfortunate byproduct of the legislation. But by that same token, McMillan says, the bill is one of the "best things we've done in Utah."

To her, the problem lies in timing.

"Our legislators want change to happen," she says.

She adds that legislators, state officials and the general population often operate on a basis of wanting to see that a bill can be successful in a short amount of time.

"When you're having to change a whole system, it's unrealistic to expect that it's going to change in a few short cycles," she says.

This time-lag between a bill passing and its quantifiable effects can likely account for the varying ways HB 348 has been viewed. McMillan says she understands law enforcements' struggle, but there's not much anyone can do about it.

"Law enforcement is going to struggle. Our treatment system is at full capacity," she says. "They can't get them into jail. They can't get them into the system. What do they do? They've really got no leverage either and it's a consequence of doing things the way we've done it for so long."

As with any type of government function, funding is a hurdle in moving forward. At present, McMillan says, there are many things legislators didn't foresee that have gone unfunded and that the entities implementing facets of HB 348 need "a hell of a lot more" money.

"The complication of it is we can't meet the demand," she says. "There's things that they didn't consider like recovery housing, job training, post-treatment support and medication. Those kinds of things aren't funded."

Whatever the case, with Thatcher and District 38 Representative Eric Hutchings, who served as the legislative sponsor for HB 348, Utahns are likely to see a push for further decriminalization in the future. And whether troublesome—as Wilkings and others in law enforcement would suggest—or beneficial, it's something, simply, Utahns should expect.

"[Criminal justice reform] is what is happening right now. It's slower than I'd like, but five years ago nobody was talking about this. There was no real effort," Thatcher says. "If we can reform our system, it's going to be done by taking money from locking people up, and instead, using that money to get people help."

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