Utah considers major criminal justice reform, reduced drug offense charges

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ST. GEORGE – The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice unanimously approved a series of proposed criminal justice reforms during a prison relocation meeting in November 2014 with the intended purpose of reducing prison population growth by changing the way Utah prosecutes drug offenses.

Upon request of Gov. Gary Herbert in January 2014, the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” report was created over an eight month span with the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts public safety performance project, and has gained momentum as lawmakers consider moving the Utah State Prison in Draper.

With the intent to ensure prison beds are reserved for serious and violent offenders while breaking the cycle of recidivism by focusing on treatment for substance abusers and mental health issues, the report contains 18 recommendations, including revising the penalties for drug offenders.

One of the most significant changes in the proposal would be reducing simple drug possession from a third-degree felony, to a class A misdemeanor. The proposal also includes reclassifying drug dealing to a third-degree felony, as well as reworking drug-free zones to focus more on drug offenses where children are more tangentially tied to the drug exposure.

Under the initiative, the restructuring of sentencing guidelines for certain lower-level crimes would mean nonviolent offenders would see two to four months off their sentences where guideline recommendations is not prison, while some class B misdemeanors would be reclassified as class C misdemeanors, and more efforts would be focused on treatment and community-based resources.

Additional recommendations include improving and expanding treatment and services for offenders returning to their communities and strengthening probation and parole supervision.

Prison problems

While Utah’s imprisonment rate ranks below the national average, its prison population grew by 18 percent over the last decade, the report said, putting the state’s prison population on track to increase by 37 percent over the next 20 years and driving the need for 2,700 additional beds.

According to the report, Utah taxpayers paid out $269 million for corrections last year, with 46 percent of inmates released from prison returning within three years.

More nonviolent offenders and individuals who had their paroles revoked on technicalities are being imprisoned, the report states, and the length of prison stays has increased.

“Meanwhile, rates of success on probation and parole have declined in the last decade and revocations from supervision now constitute two-thirds of all prison admissions,” the report said.

State of the Judiciary 

During his State of the Judiciary speech on Jan. 26, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant asked legislators to address three specific issues of criminal justice reform; issues, Durrant said, he believes could have a profound effect on the administration of justice in Utah.

Durrant urged legislators to consider the recommendations outlined in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative report; the recommendation of a salary increase for judges; as well as consideration of a bill that would add a juvenile court judge to the 4th District and a bill that would add a district judge to the 5th District.

About 98 percent of people sent to jail or prison eventually re-enter society, Durrant said.

“When they then become productive, contributing, law-abiding members of society, our state is a better and safer place,” he said. “On the other hand, when upon their release they return to their criminal ways, our state is diminished and our citizens made less safe.”

Providing offenders appropriate treatment – whether substance abuse or mental health treatment – is the most important action legislators can take to ensure when a prisoner is released, they stay released, Durrant said.

“For many,” he said, “treatment rather than prison is the better alternative in the first instance, and in fact, for some, prison may do more harm than good.”

Durrant said the consensus estimate is that 80 percent of all crime involves some kind of drug or alcohol problem.

Utah drug courts, which are designed for high-risk, high-need offenders, have seen great success, Durrant said, but the courts do not have enough treatment slots to admit every qualifying defendant, and more than 50 percent of those who could otherwise qualify aren’t admitted.

The need for judgment

Additionally, Durrant asked legislators to consider a bill sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, that would add a judge to the 4th District’s juvenile court – which serves Utah, Juab, Wasatch and Millard counties – and a bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, that would add a district judge to the 5th District – which serves Washington, Iron and Beaver counties.

“Workloads have reached a point in these districts,” he said, “where our ability to resolve cases on a timely basis for the citizens of these counties is threatened.”

Dwindling judge pool

In closing, Durrant addressed the dwindling applicant pools of well-qualified judges. The issue has pushed the Elected Official and Judicial Compensation Commission to create a report that recommends an increase of judicial salaries over the next two years to attract more “high-quality, talented and thoughtful” judges to Utah, he said.

The report proposed an 18.7 percent increase over the next two years, which would bring the annual salary of the Supreme Court justices from $150,150 to $176,024. The salary and benefit increase for all 114 judicial positions would calculate to roughly $4 million in annual ongoing costs, according to the report.

While criminal cases in Utah have decreased, the number of civil cases has gone up in recent years, Durrant said, making it especially important to find judges who have experience in commercial and business law.

“Those who seek to become judges do so to serve the public, to give something back,” he said. “For these reasons, they are willing to serve at a financial sacrifice. But compensation remains important to attracting the best people.”


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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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  • sagemoon February 3, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    *applauding common sense solutions*

    • native born new mexican February 4, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      We agree on this sagemoon. It’s about time! Reserve beds for truly violent offenders and stop using the jails and the prison as a source of income- a hidden form of taxation on those least able to pay these taxes/ fines and fees.

  • My Evil Twin February 4, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    Interest that they are tying a pay increase for judges into this legislation. Now 150K may not be an earth shaking salary, but in Utah, it “ain’t peanuts.”
    I agree with Sagemoon about common sense solutions. Having worked extensively in the [so called] “criminal justice system,” I have seen first hand how our very limited resources are eaten up by repeat drug offenders, that should be handled separate from violent offenders.

  • izzymuse February 13, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Great work Kimberly Scott on bringing more awareness on important topics! Reform is a step in the right direction. Decriminalizing drugs will be an eventual move once the public sees the effectiveness of making laws that are sensible and constitutional. Legislators will have to find other ways of building revenues for the state. Maybe someday local, state, and federal governments will actually govern on constitutional principles again! Let us hope.

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