Local residents voice views on criminal justice reforms
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
May 08, 2014 | 2236 views | 0 0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Utah has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, at about half of the national average. However, that’s not to say that the state’s penal system has any problems filling prison beds.

Approximately 60 to 70 percent of Utah’s parolees will return to prison at some point, and Gov. Gary Herbert wants to reduce that high recidivism rate, according to his top criminal justice policy advisor.

Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice Executive Director Ron Gordon said the governor recognizes that there will always be a need to keep some offenders behind bars. But Herbert is hoping that reforms to the state’s criminal justice system can help others succeed in becoming law-abiding citizens, while improving public safety in the long run, Gordon said.

“The governor … wants to make sure that the door out of prison is not a revolving door,” Gordon said during an April 28 meeting with Moab-area residents.

To that end, Herbert asked Gordon’s commission to come up with recommendations to lower the number of recidivists.

The governor didn’t do so with any fixed outcomes in mind, according to Gordon. Instead, he asked Gordon to meet with anyone and everyone who has something to say about criminal justice policy changes, from prison reform advocates and inmate support groups to county sheriffs and prosecutors.

The commission is also working with the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts and others on recommendations for sentencing reforms, and Gordon has spent the past few weeks hearing ideas from citizens across the state.

It has already come up with some ideas for sentencing reforms it would like to see, and Gordon expects that a full list of recommendations will be ready by year’s end.

He anticipates that most of the proposals, if enacted, would keep released offenders from going back to prison for certain probation or parole violations.

If another commission proposal gains traction in the state Legislature, simple drug possession cases that don’t involve trafficking would never be tried as first-degree felonies.

Utah’s criminal code currently includes a number of sentence enhancements for drug possession cases. As a result, Gordon noted that people who are convicted of possessing controlled substances within 1,000 feet of schools and churches, for instance, may be incarcerated for longer periods of time.

At the very least, Grand County League of Women Voters member and retired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent Dale Weiss supports efforts to reduce sentences in cases that involve simple possession of marijuana. But Weiss told the committee that the state should go one step further and decriminalize marijuana possession altogether.

Gordon didn’t address that specific issue. But he made the case that the state would have more money to spend on mental health and substance abuse treatment programs if it adopted reforms that cut its prison population.

The commission’s substance abuse advisory council estimates that 85 percent of state inmates have drug-related problems that are somehow tied to the crimes they committed. On average, however, help is only available to one in four of those people, the council notes.

Funding for those programs is always a challenge, according to Gordon.

League of Women Voters member Darcey Brown told the commission that the state should be spending more money on services to reduce prison populations, as opposed to building new facilities.

Gordon echoed Brown’s comments almost word for word, telling her that the issues she raised are critical. If the state doesn’t address them, he said, it will end up building prison beds at the expense of other programs or services.

“Any time you spend a dollar, you’re making a decision not to spend it somewhere else,” Gordon said.

While there’s growing momentum to move Utah State Prison away from the current site in Draper, Weiss suggested the state could scrap that idea by shifting more and more treatment services to local jails.

Right now, the state has contracts with various county jails to house about 1,600 of the state’s 7,000-plus inmates, according to Gordon.

“It’s a relationship that thus far has allowed the state not to build as many [prison] beds,” he said.

As an added benefit, Gordon noted that many of those county facilities are expanding access to services that can help inmates.

“We’ve seen the county jails implement more and more programs probably in the past 10 years than ever before,” he said. “It’s been very good for the state.”

Grand County League of Women Voters member Barbara Browning would like to see the state embrace other programs, including literacy training and English as a second language services.

Sarah Fields, meanwhile, asked the commission to ensure that young inmates can find jobs and educational resources that help them stay out of the prison system.

Gordon noted that the Utah Department of Corrections was able to launch an employment placement program that teaches inmates job skills, thanks to an infusion of federal stimulus money in 2009.

A comprehensive review of the program is currently underway, but it’s already clear that higher numbers of people who complete it have found employment, Gordon said.

To learn more about the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, go to: www.justice.utah.gov/.

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