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Criminal Justice Reform on the Hill: Part 1

16 March 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Now that the 2017 Legislative Session has been officially over for one week, we have our wits about us enough to take stock and update you on our work! LegisUpdateBlog

You may recall that before the Session began, we highlighted ten positive, proactive areas of civil liberties work that we intended to follow during the 45-day deluge of lawmaking. In a series of blog posts, we will revisit those 10 areas of work – AND give you news about a few more bonus issue areas for good measure!

For our first post-legislative session update post, let’s tackle a couple of important areas of criminal justice reform.

Death Penalty Abolition

No legislation to end Utah’s use of the death penalty this year! Due to an uncertain political climate – lots of new state lawmakers, lots of new “activity” at the federal level – our coalition of death penalty abolition organizations decided not to advance an abolition bill this session. Momentum toward abolition of the death penalty continues nationwide, though, and we expect to pursue this effort in 2018.

There was some good news on this front, though. First, we saw the near successful passage of a solid bill from Rep. Steve Handy (R-Layton), which directs the legislative auditor general to conduct a full audit of the many fiscal impacts of death penalty trials, appeals and execution. The bill, HB187, included no concrete deadline for reporting of the audit to the legislature. Luckily, a study is already underway through the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice with similar parameters.

Second, Rep. Paul Ray (R-Clearfield) enjoyed only very limited success in his seemingly endless quest to expand the use of the death penalty in Utah. For the second year in a row, Rep. Ray ran a bill to add “human trafficking” to the list of aggravating factors for which capital murder charges can be sought. For the second year in a row, this bill failed to make it to the Governor’s desk for a signature. Good riddance, HB176, “Human Trafficking Amendments.” 

Before the session began, Rep. Ray threatened to run a bill that would make the death penalty mandatory for people convicted of killing a police officer. When the bill eventually became public, it resembled much more of a traditional “Blue Lives Matter” bill, defining intentional crimes against a police officer as “terrorism” and creating penalty enhancements for these offenses. As HB433, “Penalties for Targeting Law Enforcement Officer,” moved quickly through the final two weeks of the session, it became more narrowly tailored. In the end, HB433 created criminal penalty enhancements for crimes “targeting law enforcement” that result in serious bodily injury or death. Of course, killing a law enforcement officer is already an aggravating factor for which capital murder can be charged. Hence, while this bill is somewhat troubling for other reasons, it shouldn’t further expand our use of the death penalty in Utah. HB433 is awaiting a signature from Governor Herbert as of this posting.

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Two competing bills – one good (SB87), one better (HB19) – sought to reform Utah’s extremely lax civil asset forfeiture laws. There were significant and important differences between the two bills (highlighted here in this side-by-side comparison, created by our friends at Libertas Institute), and the two bills leap-frogged one another throughout the session, both moving through the legislative process with plenty of discussion - and amending! - of each.

Finally, SB87, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher (R-West Valley) became the vehicle for compromises between it and HB19, sponsored by Rep. Brian Greene (R-Pleasant Grove). In fact, Rep. Greene became the House floor sponsor for SB87, which passed with just minutes left before midnight on the last day of the session. This legislation is not the sweeping reform we had hoped for, throughout all our work with Rep. Greene over the past several years. However, it should substantially improve the plight of community members whose property is seized by the government.  SB87 is awaiting a signature from Governor Herbert as of this posting.

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