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The ACLU of Utah Activist

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The Director’s Chair: This is a prime time in Utah to make substantial inroads into criminal justice and policing reform.

28 October 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
This is a prime time in Utah to make substantial inroads into criminal justice and policing reform. The tragic police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American man in Ferguson, Missouri along with the police shooting of a 22-year-old African American man in Saratoga Springs, Utah have become flash points raising serious questions about racial bias in policing.  In the days following Mr. Brown’s death and the resulting protests, it was revealed that in Ferguson, where the police force is almost all white, over 85% of all traffic stops involve motorists of color and over 90% of all those arrested are African American. Here in Utah, we’re also looking closely at how racial bias may impact our policing. 

Honoring Our Volunteer Attorneys

28 October 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2014 Fall Newsletter >> The ACLU of Utah has limited staff and funding, yet is faced with a huge number of requests for legal assistance from individuals and organizations. In almost all of our cases, we co-counsel and team up with volunteer attorneys. Since 1958,  volunteer lawyers have provided invaluable support to the ACLU of Utah legal program. These volunteers include sole practitioners, recent law school graduates, as well as some of the state and nation’s most prominent lawyers and firms. In addition to litigation, attorneys help in several other important ways. For example, we sometimes need help analyzing proposed legislation that affects civil liberties. In addition, we sometimes provide comments on policies or address complaints to administrative agencies. Volunteer attorneys also assist in reviewing complaints and requests for assistance from the public.  We could not have accomplished many of the significant victories we have achieved this year without the dedicated assistance of the following attorneys. We are grateful for their time and energy. We are always on the lookout for more cooperating attorneys. If you are interested in becoming involved, please visit our website at Michael S. Anderson, Parr,…

Prison Relocation: No News Is Good News...but Good News is Even Better!

28 October 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
Many folks who turned out for the Prison Relocation Commission's most recent meeting on October 22 were likely disappointed, because the big news that they were hoping for never came. 

"Justice Reinvestment" Effort Lumbers On...Destination Unclear

The state's "Justice Reinvestment" effort is creeping ever closer to reality!

Breaking Down the School to Prison Pipeline

06 October 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
There is an alarming trend that pushes out students from school and into the juvenile justice system or pushes them to drop out of school increasing their risk of entering prisons as adults.

OP-ED: We should educate, not incarcerate, our young people

05 October 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
A Salt Lake City West High School senior writes eloquently about the need to fight the growing trend, locally and nationally, to push some students out of school and into the criminal justice system.

Update: Criminal Justice Reform Effort Appears Serious...So Far

16 September 2014 Published in Prison Relocation & Justice Reinvestment in Utah
Last Tuesday, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice had an exciting meeting about the state's ongoing "Justice Reinvestment" effort. During this meeting, all the CCJJ subcommittees - working groups focused on a particular part of the criminal justice system needing reform - reported back to the full Commission as to their progress. Before I get into what each subcommittee reported, I'd like to share some cautious optimism. Actually, I'd like to share some real excitement about how well Utah's Justice Reinvestment process is going - especially when compared to other states that didn't fully embrace the possibility of meaningful reform. Many other states - from Texas and South Carolina, to Hawaii and Oregon - have engaged in Justice Reinvestment efforts in the past eight years. Some have been heralded as true successes. In South Carolina, for example, significant enough reforms were made - and backed by serious enough funding! - to result in an 8% drop in the state's overall prison population. South Carolina policymakers engaged in sentencing reform, reform of paroling and release policies, expansion of community-based treatment options, and more. Republican South Carolina Senator George E. Campsen III remarked of the state's omnibus Justice Reinvestment legisiation: “This…

Getting It Dead Wrong for 30 Years

07 September 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
By Cassandra Stubbs, Director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project According to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Henry Lee McCollum deserved to die for the brutal rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. There's just one problem, and a frequent one in death penalty cases: Henry Lee McCollum didn't do it. Instead of tracking down the true killer, police and prosecutors went after Henry Lee McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled and innocent teenagers. While his mother wept in the hallway, not allowed to see her son, officers interrogated McCollum for five hours, ultimately coercing him to sign a confession they had written. In a trial without forensic evidence and plagued by racial bias, these two half-brothers with IQs in the 50s and 60s were sent to death row. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, whose sentence was later reduced to life in prison, have been behind bars for the last 30 years. Read more >>

Welcome to Fall - Part Two: So...How's That Prison Relocation Thing Going?

04 September 2014 Published in Prison Relocation & Justice Reinvestment in Utah
Okay, you're starting to wake up to the cool crisp air, and you've gotten up to speed on Utah's "Justice Reinvestment" criminal justice reform project. Hmmm...what was that other super huge major important thing you were concerned about before you checked out for the summer? The prison relocation! That's right: the state's ongoing effort to move Utah's primary correctional facility from its current location in Draper to...somewhere else. Nope, you didn't miss out on that detail. There is NO SITE selected yet for the new prison. In fact, there is no official recommendation. There is also no public list of potential sites. But that doesn't mean nothing is happening! When we last left the Prison Relocation Commission (PRC) back in July, it had split into several subgroups to discuss major decision points for the new prison project: where to site it (Site Selection Working Group); what programs and how many beds to put into it (Reform & Programming Working Group); and how to pay for it (Finance Working Group). You can refresh your memory with our run-down of the working groups here. The full PRC met for the first time in two months on Sept. 3. Here's a good write up…

Welcome to Fall - Part One: So...How's That Criminal Justice Reform Thing Going?

01 September 2014 Published in Prison Relocation & Justice Reinvestment in Utah
If you're anything like the rest of us, you've been blissfully tuned out of all the usual "work-and-society-and-boring-meetings" news for a couple of months. Well, summer's over, and it's time to get ourselves up to speed on how the state's criminal justice reform efforts are coming along. Note: if you've been tuned out so long that you can't even remember what I'm talking about, read this Tribune story by Robert Gehrke about the state's "Justice Reinvestment" initiative, undertaken with the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.  The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) officially launched the effort with Pew in April 2014. Since we are five months in (though the media are just now starting to pay attention!), this seems a good time to take stock of the effort. To refresh your memory of the Justice Reinvestment process and timeline: Justice Reinvestment began with Pew collecting data, conducting research and investigating Utah's criminal justice system.  Pew reviewed the data with CCJJ to identify what is driving Utah's prison population growth. Pew evaluated how well Utah is incorporating criminal justice "best practices" into various aspects of its system. CCJJ will work with Pew to craft legislation, to be put before the…

Op-ed: Board of Pardons and Parole needs support, attention and reform

21 August 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
The Tribune recently reported on Utah’s “Justice Reinvestment” effort, undertaken with support from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. These reports mention reforms that, if adopted, could reduce Utah’s prison population: tweaking sentencing guidelines, improving community supervision practices, and ensuring that “evidence-based practices” are used by judges, agents and counselors.

Where Evidence-Based Practices Will Fail Us

As Utah's public agencies and criminal justice entities hum with enthusiasm about data-driven approaches and evidence-based practices (for example: here, here, here, here, you get the idea), I hate to be the one to point this out but... is inevitable that Utah's favorite criminal justice buzz term - "Evidence-Based Practices" - will run into the buzz saw of reality at some point. And by reality, I mean decades of policies - in law enforcement, housing, education, and other areas of government involvement - that discriminate against certain Americans based on their race and class. Luckily, I'm not the only one pointing this out. I highly recommend this excellent article in Time last week describing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's concerns about increased used of risk assessment tools, particularly in pre-sentencing processes. While this data-driven approach to criminal justice may save money, it is very likely to perpetuate terrible and unjustified racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Before we get too far in the weeds, let's take a second to define "evidence-based practices' as the term is used in the criminal justice world. An "evidence-based practice" or "EBP" is an approach or intervention that has been evaluated - with some academic…

The Shadow Economy of Lethal Injection Drug Deals

03 August 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU  For all we know, the "pharmacy" might be a high school science class. That's how a federal appeals court judge described Missouri's secretive death penalty system back in the spring. Shady medical experiments masquerading as legal executions have gone horrifically wrong in four states already this year. During the most recent, Arizona officials shot 15 separate doses of experimental drugs into Mr. Joseph Wood. This bungled execution lasted for nearly two hours, during which Mr. Wood gasped for breath 660 times and then finally suffocated to death. Read more >>

Overheated Gang Rhetoric Contradicts Reform Efforts

For months now, responsible elected officials and earnest public servants have been speaking the encouraging language of criminal justice reform: "evidence-based practices"...."doing what works"...."making policy based on facts, not emotion." There is growing recognition across the political spectrum that there are too many mentally ill people cycling in and out of jail, too many people in prison who really just need substance abuse treatment, too many new felonies created each year by the state legislature. And then, just when you're feeling hopeful, something like this happens. Yes, gang violence is a serious problem. Usually, it is most serious for the men and women who are trapped in gang life, but it's also a serious problem for the community members and law enforcement officers who encounter it. Certainly, gang issues deserve our attention. Our careful, data-driven, constitutionally-sensitive, non-panicky attention. What we do not need - especially when Utah is on the verge of making real progress in reducing our prison population and solving our serious recidivism problem - is to encourage law enforcement to overreact to community safety issues in ways that threaten civil liberties and perpetuate mass incarceration. I'm not saying that Utahns shouldn't be concerned about "outlaw motorcycle gangs."…

The Director’s Chair: We are energized by our recent successes

09 July 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
We are energized by our recent successes. The federal district court just released its decision in La Raza v. Utah blocking parts of HB 497, Utah’s Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act and severely restricting other aspects of it. Great news! Our 2011 lawsuit initially resulted in the court’s granting of a restraining order which stopped the law from going into effect for the past three years pending this ruling.

The Definition of Insanity

17 June 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
By Cassandra Stubbs, Director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project Last night marked the first executions in this country since the horrifically botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. In case you've forgotten, it took Mr. Lockett over 40 minutes to die. He remained conscious, writhing in pain, as an experimental cocktail of lethal injection drugs failed to carry out their intended purpose. And until last night, this country went seven weeks without subjecting someone to the same sort of medical experimentation. Read more >>

What is Driving Utah's Prison Population?

On May 15, analysts from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project made the first in a series of presentations about Utah’s criminal justice system. As part of a Justice Reinvestment process that Pew is undertaking with state leadership, this presentation offered information about specific “drivers” of Utah’s growing prison population. The information was derived from data obtained from the Department of Corrections and the state courts, then analyzed by Pew. This blog post is meant to be a quick recap of the Pew presentation, with a few thoughts from the ACLU of Utah thrown in! You can read the full presentation for yourself and draw your own conclusions: it is available for download at the bottom of this page.  While Utah does not incarcerate as much, per capita, as most other states, we are nonetheless bucking an important and positive national trend of prison de-population. Our state prison population grew 22% in the last decade, and is still going up. Nationally, prison and jail populations peaked in 2007, and have been declining since. The ACLU of Utah also likes to remind our fellow Utahns that while our rate of incarceration is relatively low, it is still inexcusably high by historical…

In Perverse Equation, Sketches + Skin Color = Gang Tagger

18 May 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
This article features the ACLU of Utah’s class-action lawsuit representing Salt Lake City public school students targeted by law enforcement during a gang sweep.

Congratulations, Utah couples!

18 May 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist
Sign a Utah Unites for Marriage card congratulating legally married same-sex couples across the state.

America's Mentally Ill Are Being Treated Behind Bars

Check out this excellent article by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones, which refers to a new report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a group that works to remove barriers to effective treatment of mental illness throughout the United States. Our nation has long since made the switch from treating the mentally ill in mental treating them (poorly, according to the TAC report) in jails and prisons. Sadly, as Mencimer points out, this vulnerable group is also more likely to be overrepresented in solitary confinement, which has be shown to have incredibly detrimental effects on even otherwise mentally healthy people. They are also much more likely to commit suicide while in custody. The ACLU of Utah is currently working with state and county partners to help connect criminal-justice-involved people with the treatment they need - most often for mental illness and also substance use disorders - and save them from damaging time spent behind bars. To learn more about the policy challenges facing Utah in this area, contact Anna Brower, ACLU of Utah Public Policy Advocate, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..