Utah's Prison Population to Increase by 37 Percent in 20 Years Without Immediate Reforms | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Utah's Prison Population to Increase by 37 Percent in 20 Years Without Immediate Reforms

Posted By on October 22, 2014, 2:16 PM

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The crowd packed into the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission meeting were disappointed to hear there was no news about specific sites for relocating the Draper prison, but instead heard perhaps more important news that Utah's current prison population of nearly 7,000 inmates could almost double in the next two decades unless the Legislature took immediate action.

Ron Gordon the director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has been working with the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine factors affecting Utah's criminal justice system. At the Wednesday morning committee he explained that while Utah corrections is expected to see a 37 percent growth in its inmate population in 20 years, that 97 percent of that growth could be avoided if the Legislature adopts all of a series of reforms he presented.

He emphasized that the reforms had to be done in the next session and couldn't be done piecemeal over the coming years.

“We will try to do all of these [reforms] next session then in 2016 we will come back with more,” Gordon told the commission.

The aggressive agenda includes reforming sentencing guidelines for offenders as well as investments in treatment services and other programming for inmates to keep them from re-offending and returning to the prison system.

“If we're going to have prison time avoided right now then we need treatment and community resources—right now,” Gordon said.

Gordon highlighted numerous reforms, at the top of the sentencing list was reducing drug possessions from felonies to Class A Misdemeanors.

This proposal he stressed would be enhanced to target drug dealers, but otherwise was meant to provide more leniency for people caught with drugs for their own use. It was one measure he pointed out meant to reduce incarceration times for people involved in non-violent crimes.

“Prison by itself does not reduce recidivism in the long term,” Gordon said of the rate of released inmates returning to prison. “Having said that there are certainly many individuals who need to be incarcerated because they are a danger and pose a threat to the public safety.”

A point he also emphasized in proposing sentence reductions for non-violent offenses by two to four months.

Other proposals included making certain practices in sentencing and corrections more formalized. For example standardizing “earned time credit” that would allow inmates to have sentences reduced for successful completion of programming and goals set by case workers. Currently many prisoners who meet these goals will have recommendations for reductions in their sentences but their aren't more established goals in place to incentivize inmates to meet these goals with the concrete knowledge it will help shave time off their sentences.

More hard and fast guidelines would also be beneficial for jail sentences inmates would receive for technical violations of their paroles. Proposing a “graduated” rate of sanction that might include two months for the first violation, four months for a second violation and six months for subsequent violations.

Gordon said laws could be crafted to still give wiggle room on sentencing for violations but that generally sentences exceeding these parameters can be counter productive.

“That's based on research that says 10 months for recidivism purposes is not better than four months, sometimes it can do more harm,” Gordon said.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who heads a sub group of the commission devoted to criminal justice reform went further to say that he would like to see the Legislature consider a mechanism for making technical parole violations even less onerous on parolees. In some cases he pointed out that 30 days incarceration for a technical violation would likely mean the parolee would lose a job, miss car payments and other bills and get evicted from their housing, leaving them in a very difficult position once they were released from the violation.

“If they've messed up and need a wake-up call, we want to make sure that wake up call is appropriate to the mess up,” Hutchings said.

Gordon's proposed reforms included numerous other recommendations from re-thinking “Drug Free Zones” that might be unfairly enhancing certain offenders criminal sentences to establishing better certification for drug treatment centers and best practices for county jails. He also urged that there needs to be more community resources to help keep people clean from drugs and help those out in need of mental health issues.

While Gordon recognized he was pushing an aggressive wish-list, he like Hutchings and others on the commission, understood they had a rare now-or-never opportunity to improve the state's correctional system given the focus that the prison's relocation has brought to related issues of criminal justice reform.

“If there was ever a time to look at should we be doing it different, this is it,” Hutchings said.

To find your legislator to contact them about the prison relocation and criminal justice reforms click here. For more updates from the Capitol and the coming legislative session visit CityWeekly.net and follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.

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