How Utah Is Trying to Curb the Growth of Its Prison Population

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Adding more beds for inmates was going to be costly, so Beehive State leaders chose a different path. Gov. Herbert: ‘This is an example of a state leading.’

WASHINGTON — Before a set of sweeping reforms meant to slow growth in Utah’s prison population was enacted earlier this year, officials in the state were weighing a different matter related to criminal justice.

“We were going to build a brand new prison,” said Ron Gordon, executive director of Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. “We started talking about building enough beds to replace the existing prison and then thought: If we are going to build 4,000, why not six and if not six, why not eight, let’s really take advantage of things and build a 10,000 bed facility?”  

“Then we had to stop and say that’s not the right direction to go,” he explained at an event in the nation’s capital on Thursday. “We don’t want to just build more and more beds.”

Going forward, the hope among state leaders in Utah is that there will be less demand for prison beds, and that the ones that do get filled will be occupied by serious and violent offenders.

Behind that optimism are reforms that are part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which went into effect in Utah on Thursday. A bill that contained the measures, H.B. 348, passed out of the state Legislature on March 23. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed it about a week later.

Some of the changes that are set to take place under the new law include reducing first-time and second-time drug possession convictions from felonies to misdemeanors, expanding mental health and substance abuse treatment services for offenders, providing opportunities for inmates to earn sentence reductions by completing specified programs meant to keep them out of prison in the future, and offering greater assistance to people transitioning out of prison.

“This is an example of a state leading,” Herbert said.

The governor spoke at the same event where Gordon made his remarks. The forum was sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided technical assistance as the reform legislation was developed. A number of other officials and lawmakers from the Beehive State were on hand at the event as well, including U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch.

“Congress really could learn a lot from Utah’s efforts,” Hatch said.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, at the U.S. Capitol, a bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement on a legislative proposal, which would dial back mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders and, like the Utah law, also aims to cut down on recidivism.

“The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth,” Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican co-sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement on Thursday.

“Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent,” he added. “In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety.”

Similar issues to the ones Lee raised in his statement have played out in his home state’s criminal justice system in recent years.

Even though crime fell in Utah between 2004 and 2013, the prison population there grew by about 18 percent, six times faster than the national average, according to a November 2014 report prepared by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which contained recommendations that were eventually worked into the reform bill.

The commission consists of 22 criminal justice leaders from across the state. It is charged with promoting broad agreement on topics related to criminal justice in Utah, and providing various levels and branches of government a way to coordinate on such matters.

Utah’s prison population was upwards of 7,000 inmates in 2014. That’s not especially large compared to the number of people locked up in some other U.S. states.

But the report pointed out that if the state did not take action, the number of incarcerated people was on track to grow by about 2,700, or 37 percent, by 2034.

Expenses accompanying that growth would come on top of the $270 million the state was already spending annually on corrections. And half of the $1 billion in projected cost for the prison project Gordon mentioned would go toward accommodating additional inmates.

Recidivism was also a problem. As of January 2014, about 46 percent of inmates had been sent back to prison for parole and probation violations, according to the commission report.

“It was a revolving door,” Herbert said, referring to the Utah’s prison system in recent years. “That was not a good thing for the taxpayer, certainly not a good thing for society.”

He also noted that most of the people who ended up imprisoned were nonviolent offenders, who “were not really a threat to society from a bodily harm standpoint.” And for many, he said, problems with substance abuse and addiction were a factor in why they landed behind bars.

According to Pew, the policies included in the new law are backed by research and, over the next 20 years, should eliminate most of Utah’s projected prison growth, while saving taxpayers over $500 million.

Utah is far from a liberal stronghold. As of October, 63 of the 75 members of the state’s House of Representatives were Republican, as were 24 of 29 state senators.

So did lawmakers get punished politically for backing legislation that could be seen as soft on crime?

“It didn’t hurt me a bit,” said state Rep. Eric Hutchings, a Republican legislator who was one of the lead sponsors of H.B. 348. “Everybody gets it.”

Having the data to show why the reforms made sense, he added, was especially important when it came to building support for the legislation.

“The numbers proved the case,” Hutchings said. “The argument became simple for why we had to make this very complex change because the data was just glaringly obvious.”

But debate around the changes that were included in the bill was not always smooth. Gordon, the executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, noted that the recommendation to downgrade drug possession convictions met stiff opposition.

But here again, data played an important role in how discussions about the issue played out.

“It took a lot of data analysis and a lot of research analysis to show that prison was not improving any outcomes for these individuals, that the most effective way to rehabilitate them, to improve public safety, was to provide treatment,” Gordon said. “It was a significant battle that was eventually won only through data and research.”

At least 34 states have carried out some degree of sentencing and corrections reforms since 2007, according to information Pew published in June.

But some see the new Utah law as especially comprehensive.

“Others are going to follow and copy and hopefully maybe even improve on what we’ve done here,” Herbert said. He added: “The revolving door of prisons really must end and can end.”

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