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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

2016 Legislative Session: What to Watch For! (Part 2)

28 January 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Medical cannabis...increasingly long prison stays for Utah inmates...your right to an attorney...oh my!IMG 9109

The first week of the 2016 Legislative Session is well underway! In the mornings, legislators are meeting to review budgets for state agencies. In the afternoons, committees are already beginning to hear and consider legislation. We've already had one of our proactive bills - advancing working moms' rights! - move successfully out of a committee hearing. 

With all the different issues at play during our surprisingly (thankfully?) short 45-day legislative session, we know that even the most ardent civil libertarians and ACLU supporters sometimes struggle to keep up.

So this week we are posting some thoughts on “Watch to Watch in 2016!” for our supporters, partners and friends. Tuesday, we talked about WORKING MOMS & EQUAL RIGHTS, POLICE BODY CAMS, and some minor SENTENCING REFORMS. Here is the second installment!

INDIGENT DEFENSE REFORM

Last August, when we launched our Yes On Six! Campaign, we were hopeful that state lawmakers would be ready to take real action during the session to rectify the Sixth Amendment crisis in Utah. A month later, when the Sixth Amendment Center released a fairly dismal report on our failing county-by-county indigent defense delivery system, we were even more hopeful that swift and serious action would be taken.

Sadly, we don’t expect to see any substantial reforms proposed this year in the legislature. Senator Todd Weiler plans to introduce a solid piece of legislation to form a statewide indigent defense commission, which will play an important role (eventually) in providing some state oversight of county public defender systems. However, it does not do nearly enough to alleviate the seriousness of our problems statewide.

Despite this effort by Senator Weiler, we predict litigation will be necessary to force real reform – and enough funding to make that reform work – to our indigent defense system. Stay tuned!

HATE CRIMES

The ACLU of Utah has worked closely with Equality Utah to shape a piece of legislation that will provide consequences for hate crimes against members of vulnerable and historically marginalized groups, such as racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community, while also protecting First Amendment freedoms.

The legislation will be closely modeled on the Matthew Shephard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, but with stronger First Amendment protections. As long as the legislative effort retains these protections, the ACLU of Utah will be supportive!

RESTRICTIONS (and some potential progress!) ON REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

There’s no official language out for anti-choice bills yet, but we have heard murmurs of potential bills to somehow throw legislative strength behind Gov. Herbert’s move to de-fund Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, as well as establish a ban on abortions in the case of pregnancies 20 weeks or beyond (some version of the so-called “fetal pain” bills we’ve seen introduced around the country in recent years).

The ACLU of Utah will strenuously oppose any legislation that seeks to limit Utahns’ access to safe, effective and legal health care related to reproduction.

We will support, on the other hand, an innovative bill by Representative Brian King (that aims to increase women’s access to contraception while also expanding the offering of comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education in Utah schools. That language is not yet public, but we’ll keep you posted.

MEDICAL CANNABIS

Sure, we’d love to see all prosecutions for cannabis possession end here and now, but we’ll settle for making sure that people who are sick and using cannabis to treat their symptoms don’t end up behind bars.  

We fully support the efforts of Senator Mark Madsen, backed by the impressive advocacy and grassroots mobilization of Libertas Institute and local medical cannabis activist Christine Stenquist, to make medical cannabis available to seriously, chronically ill Utahns.

There is another bill floating around out there. While Senator Madsen’s legislation proposes a thoughtful regulatory structure to ensure that several categories of very sick people can use medical cannabis to treat their symptoms safely, the competing legislation does very little to increase access.

Senator Madsen’s medical cannabis proposal is the only one for us this session! We believe, along with our community partners and fellow civil libertarians, that chronically ill Utahns should be treated like PATIENTS, NOT CRIMINALS.

REFORMING THE BOARD OF PARDONS AND PAROLE

There’s just one entity in Utah that makes the final decision on how long each and every state prison inmate stays behind bars. Not the courts, not the legislature…the Board of Pardons and Parole. This small, relatively unknown agency has an incredible amount of power and discretion – it also is likely seriously underperforming, in the context of criminal justice reform.

During the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process of 2014 and 2015, research by the non-partisan Pew Charitable Trust revealed that one of the factors driving Utah’s prison population growth has been INCREASINGLY LONG SENTENCES. That means, people are spending longer in prison for the same crime today than they did 10 years ago – filling beds, costing thousands of dollars, and hindering attempts at rehabilitation without contributing to enhanced public safety.

The Justice Reinvestment legislation passed in 2015 – HB348 – did very little to impact the BOPP’s processes or performance. However, excellent advocacy by groups like Utah Prisoner Advocate Network and Utah Prison Support led some clever legislator to request a legislative audit of the Board. That audit will be released to the public, and presented to the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, next Monday, February 1.

Considering that the Board continues to keep all its files in an antiquated paper system, without proper coordination with other criminal justice agencies, and it does no tracking or reporting of its own performance (with regards to releasing people at the proper times, or in accordance with the state Sentencing Guidelines), we anticipate that the audit will be quite condemning. We hope there are many strong recommendations in the audit that we can support!