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Pot, People and Prison Relocation: Updates from the Criminal Justice World

19 May 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

The ACLU of Utah works on criminal justice issues all up and down what we call the "criminal justice pipeline" - everything from law enforcement tactics and discipline in school to prison/jail conditions and felon discrimination. That's a lot of work. And it's also a lot of news to pass along to our supporters, allies and partners. So here goes!

First of all, some "front of the pipeline" issues...including small reforms to combat the over-criminalization of non-violent, non-threatening activities and behavior.

Senator Mark Madsen's legislation to allow the use of medical cannabis will definitely be back in 2016! The ACLU of Utah is very supportive of this effort. You can hear me talking about the issue with Senator Madson on KTALK 630 last Thursday here (Utah Legislative Update).

 Lots of talk this month about radical ways of "solving homelessness" in Utah - including what to do about homeless individuals who spend time in and around the the Rio Grande/Pioneer Park area of Salt Lake City. Homeless advocates have expressed some concerns about the tactics of consultant Robert Mobut, who spoke today to the Pioneer Park Coalition.

When people start to talk about "getting serious about dealing with the homeless," we start to worry about "criminalizing homelessness." The ACLU likes to remind policymakers in Salt Lake and elsewhere, when elected officials get too aggressive about "handling the homeless" that it's not a crime to be homeless, it's not a crime to be poor or to HELP people who are poor  and peaceful panhandling is constitutionally-protected free speech.

If we really want to help people stay out of the criminal justice system EARLY, we should spend more time and money providing adequate public defense to people who can't afford an attorney (frankly, most of us!) when charged with a crime. PUBLIC DEFENSE, or "indigent defense," is going to be a hot topic later this year, when the Sixth Amendment Center releases what is expected to be a damning report about the state of Utah's public defender system. The ACLU of Utah will be aggressively pursuing improvements - stay tuned!

And, of course, the latest on the prison relocation. Surprise (actually, not so much) - everybody is prepared to spend the summer screaming about how they don't want the prison anywhere near their community. The Prison Relocation Commission caught some flak from the Tribune for not planning to have any PRC members available for questions at the recently announced Prison Relocation Open Houses in Salt Lake, Grantsville and Eagle Mountain. The Commission has apparently switched course and plans to have members present at these events.

Rep. Merrill Nelson (R-Grantsville) has called for an independent audit to verify the figures being tossed around about the economic benefits of moving the prison. The Deseret News says that's a great idea. I say, sure, do an independent audit. But in my opinion, we don't need to MAKE money off the move. The improved facilities for inmates is enough for me. Which brings me to my next point...

Often lost in the discussion about the prison relocation are the many benefits that a new facility could provide - especially in terms of providing a more productive, humane and safe environment for inmates. Check out this Op-Ed in the Deseret News by Ben Aldana for some nice thoughts about what we should ask for in a new prison (you know, once we get done complaining about building it).

And what about that whole Justice Reinvestment Initiative thing I used to write about all the time? What's going on with that?

Rep. Eric Hutchings' big criminal justice reform bill, HB348, backed by months of data and discussion from the Pew Charitable Trust and the Commission on Criminal Juvenile Justice, went into effect last week. But that doesn't mean that the reforms started HAPPENING this week. It'll take until October for all the affected agencies to iron out their implementation plans.

To keep updated on how the implementation is proceeding, I highly recommend attending upcoming meetings of both CCJJ and the Sentencing Commission (see end of post for meeting times and dates).

County sheriffs (check this) are still complaining about the impacts of the Justice Reinvestment reforms on county jail populations. They contend that lowering the penalties for drug possession will just push people out of state PRISON cells and into county JAIL cells.

This puzzles me - if the prison can weed out low-level non-violent offenders who don't need to be in the state prison, why can't the jails identify low-level non-violent offenders who don't need to be in the county jails? Other cities and states are seeking ways to reduce the number of jail beds taken up by PRE-TRIAL detainees - essentially, people who are sitting in cells, waiting to be sentenced, because they can't afford bail. One idea: Eliminate bail. Why punish people just for being poor?

Finally, the nation is still in an uproar about officer-involved fatalities of community members.

There have been many high-profile deaths of community members in police custody - Freddy Gray in Baltimore,Tony Robinson in Madison - and I am happy to report that potentially deadly law enforcement encounters are also very much a topic of discussion in Utah, too.

MULTIPLE legislative committees at the state level are looking at the issue of law enforcement use of force. The ACLU of Utah has been invited to a couple of meetings of the Administrative Rules Committee which is getting some press for its conversations about how cops interact with the communit. But on May 20th - Legislative Interim Day - both the Judiciary and Law Enforcement committees are expected to talk about this same issue. No verdict yet on whether anything will HAPPEN, but the conversation is a good sign.

Speaking of shootings by law enforcement, check out this recent City Weekly article about the Raise Your Pen Coalition - a great example of proactive community response to a tragic shooting by law enforcement (in this case, by federal marshals). The work of Raise Your Pen is a great reminder that everyone deserves justice and accountability - regardless of their background or criminal record - when harmed by an agent of the government.

If you are interested in learning more about how community oversight of law enforcement can help to remedy excessive force and resolve individual incidents, join us on June 13 for this community conversation about how to create robust oversight boards.

That's it for now! Be sure to check our ACLU Utah Facebook page for regular updates on ALL our work - oh, and follow us on Twitter, too (@acluutah). Lots of good info sources, new stories and sometimes live tweeting of important public events.

Upcoming Meetings Related to State Criminal Justice:


June 11, 12-2pm, Copper Room (Senate Building)
Aug 13,  12-2pm,  Copper Room (Senate Building)
Oct 8,     12-2pm,  Copper Room (Senate Building)
Dec 10,  12-2pm,  Copper Room (Senate Building)


June 4,   12-2pm, Senate Caucus Room (Capitol Building)
Aug 5,     12-2pm  Senate Caucus Room (Capitol Building)
Oct 7,      12-2pm,  Senate Caucus Room (Capitol Building)
Dec 2,     12-2pm,  Senate Caucus Room (Capitol Building)