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Wrapping up the Legislative Session: Criminal Justice "odds & ends"

07 April 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

2015-Criminal-Justice-ReformHere it is, friends, your final installment of select(ed) information from the 2015 legislative session, related to criminal justice reform.

This update was prepared by Anna Brower, Public Policy Advocate.

Because these bills tend to be tangentially related to the substantive criminal justice reform the ACLU of Utah has been working on, we didn't even have an official position on some of them. But they nonetheless illuminate how policy changes in one area can impact how our criminal justice system works (or, in some cases, doesn't). 

HB11 - "Death Penalty Procedure Amendments" 

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray - PASSED, signed by GOV. HERBERT last week 

  • What it did: For those who are super freaked out by this fairly retrograde approach to dealing with a shortage of lethal injection drugs nationwide, you can take SOME comfort in the facts that 1) this bill really does make TECHNICAL not GROUNDBREAKING changes and 2) the next several people to be executed on Utah's death row have already chosen to be executed by firing squad so it won't subject those people to much more terrible injustice than the application of the death penalty already does (which is a lot). Contrary to much of the media coverage, this bill did not "bring back the firing squad" - Ronnie Lee Gardner's execution in this decade shows it really hasn't gone anywhere. It also did not "establish the firing squad as our primary method of execution." It just directs that the state can use firing squad instead of lethal injection, if lethal injection drugs are not available but the inmate had chosen to be executed in that manner. It's still a back-up. 
  • What it DIDN'T do: Much for Utah's image across the country or the WORLD. In a year when we passed really important criminal justice reforms this is the nasty issue that sucked all the attention out of the room - making Utahns look like gun-toting crazy people bent on killing "bad guys" convicted by a pretty problematic system, instead of thoughtful people interested in improving public safety through evidence-based criminal justice policy. This bill also did NOT allow for much discussion of whether we should even be USING the death penalty, which has so many problems in practice, as well as in application, that it BEGS for a substantive discussion. If we really want to avoid unnecessary costs and negative publicity and lengthy court battles, we should do away with capital cases altogether. 
  • ACLU reaction: Super, super disappointed. Utah opted for the flashy quick fix this time, instead of engaging in the debate and study we REALLY need. We were a little pleasantly surprised, however, at the close House vote - as well as the strong statements made against the death penalty by both Democrats and moderate Republicans. 

SB116 (eventually SB116S05) - "Public School Dropout Recovery" 

Sponsored by Sen. Aaron Osmond - PASSED, not SIGNED but NOT VETOED by GOV. HERBERT, so its LAW! 

(laws that are unsigned but not vetoed pass into law after the April 1 deadline for gubernatorial signature)

  • What it does: Why include a bill about school dropouts? Because not having a high school diploma is one of the most common characteristics shared by folks behind bars in Utah's prisons and jails. Sen. Aaron is a big advocate of interrupting what the ACLU and other civil rights groups call "the School-to-Prison Pipeline," which describes how young people (particularly kids of color and those with disabilities) targeted for excessive discipline in school end up in the adult criminal justice system. This bill sought to provide incentives and accountability for schools to "recover" students who drop out (by keeping them in the education system, even if through alternative learning opportunities).
  • What it doesn't do: Since the incentives piece dropped out (note the FIVE substitutes), this bill doesn't really have any teeth or funding. The bill still requires the Dept. of Education to make rules and asks for schools to report on dropout recovery, but it will need some beefing up in future sessions in order to achieve the objectives that motivated it in the first place. 
  • ACLU reaction: Pleased, and looking forward to the next iteration of this effort. 

HB453 - " Restitution for Incarceration Costs Amendments"

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray - did NOT pass (never got out of Rules Committee, in fact)

  • What it WOULD have done: In the words of Troy Rawlings, the Davis County Attorney who actually makes prosecutors look like the good guys sometimes, "HB-453 Is A Joke That Is Not Funny And Will Cause Problems to Fix Something That Is Not Broken." Mr. Rawlings helped to facilitate a civil-liberties-friendly resolution to an important change to the "pay to stay" abuses in Davis County last spring. This bill was a repudiation, in some ways, of that resolution - seeking to clear the way to reinstitute the practices that allowed for the abuse in the first place.
  • What it WON'T do: Anything, thankfully, since it didn't move anywhere. But what this bill would NOT have done, is help advance criminal justice reform in Utah. Forcing people to pay for their own jail stays, in general, can perpetuate a cycle of poverty and crime for people who never had the money to stay away from criminal activity in the first place. "Pay to stay" and other such fees and fines that punish people beyond their time behind bars don't prevent crime, but they can actually ruin lives: see also, "modern day debtors' prisons." 
  • ACLU reaction: We did NOT like this bill, as strongly as we did NOT like the pay-to-stay problems that preceded it. We were relieved it died. 

HB262 - " Prison Relocation Commission Modifications"

Sponsored by Rep. Merrill Nelson - did NOT pass (never got out of Rules Committee, in fact)

  • What it WOULD have done: I am including this bill because it got some attention before the session started, so people asked me about later whatever happened to it. This was that bill introduced by the Representative from Grantsville - definitely no coincidence - that would require the Prison Relocation Commission to consider DRAPER - the current site of the prison - among the FUTURE sites of the prison. 
  • What it WOULDN'T have done: Asked the Prison Relocation Commission to do anything it hadn't already done. Leaving the prison at the point of the mountain, but rebuilding it to improve the facilities, was considered among the possible scenarios by both PRADA 2.0 and the Prison Relocation Commission. It was determined that a substantial amount of state funds would be required to rebuild the prison in Draper, and that it would be financially untenable to do so, with no funds to rely on from an eventual development of the Draper property. I would add to this that it is political fantasy to think that Utah taxpayers would ever support a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars renovation to benefit state prison inmates and correctional staff. We may like the LOCATION of the current prison, but the public generally has NO interest in spending any money on the effective rehabilitation and constitutional treatment of the people inside that prison. 
  • ACLU reaction: Meh. 

That's it for this final legislative re-cap! Have a great weekend, and - as always - feel free to contact me directly to discuss any information contained (or not contained) in this email. Next week, we'll return to an old favorite....upcoming meetings for people interested in criminal justice reform!