Just like every other state in the U.S., Utah has an incarceration problem. On any given day, thousands of Utahns can be found behind bars, locked up in prison and jail facilities. In 1978, just 66.6 out of every 100,000 people in Utah were behind bars, serving time in either state prison or county jail. By 2015, the incarceration rate shot up to 216.7 per 100,000 people – that is more than triple the rate less than forty years before.
Along with those incarcerated, thousands more are on probation or parole. Tens of thousands struggle to find a stable job or safe housing, due to a criminal record.
It’s important to note that over the past four decades, the rate of crime in our state has significantly and steadily declined – even as the overall population has almost doubled. This tells us that our communities are safer than they have ever been.
And yet, we continue to see more and more people sent to jail and prison each year. The driving forces behind our country’s mass incarceration epidemic are multi-faceted and difficult to deconstruct, but we can identify some individual contributors to the problem.
The ACLU of Utah’s latest report, “Utah’s Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline,” examines one contributor to this trend: new laws proposed (and often passed) each year that criminalize behavior and increase penalties. This approach doesn’t work, and wastes millions of taxpayer dollars! The goal of this report is to help the general public, our elected officials, and their policy partners see how, in an attempt to address complicated community issues, our state relies too heavily on over-criminalization and over-punishment.
During the 2017 Legislative Session, Utah lawmakers proposed nearly 30 bills that threatened to exacerbate Utah’s mass incarceration problem. This is a bipartisan habit; lawmakers from both sides of the aisle continuously think up new crimes and devise new or hardened punishments.
Taken individually, each of these bills can seem like a good idea. The problems that lawmakers are trying to address are serious, and their intentions in addressing those problems are generally good. But when taken
all together, and over multiple years, these bills result in a very problematic pattern.
Change is possible, though. State legislators can - and do! - also pass positive bills that reform our criminal justice system and help to heal our communities from the devastating impacts of mass incarceration. As we ramp up for the 2018 legislative session, just three months away, we hope you’ll use this report to learn how we to avoid old policy traps that threaten to keep us stuck in an age of mass incarceration.
Read the full report “Utah’s Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline!”
This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2017 Fall Newsletter >>