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Criminal Justice Update: Drugs, Drugs and More Drugs

19 February 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

2015-Criminal-Justice-ReformThis was a big week for criminal justice reform at the state capitol!

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

Actually, I'm sure it was also a big week for reform in OTHER parts of the state, AND across the country. But the legislative session tends to be a bit all-consuming when you are in the midst of it, so this update is primarily focused on some news from the Capitol. If you can make it through to the end, though, there are a few bonus "big picture" items for your reading pleasure.

There was the announcement of HB348, "Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments," the big Justice Reinvestment bill we've all been anxiously waiting for, at a press conference on Wednesday morning. Bill sponsors Rep. Eric Hutchings and Sen. Stuart Adams spoke as did Department of Corrections Director Rollin Cook and CCJJ Executive Director Ron Gordon. There was lots of good coverage of the press event, including: this story in the Salt Lake Tribune, this story in the Deseret News, these pieces on Fox13 News and Channel 4 News, and this update from the City Weekly. Oh wait, and this one from the Ogden Standard-Examiner!

The bill is not yet scheduled for a committee hearing; word on the street is, the sponsors want to discuss this substantial package of reforms with their party caucus next week before a committee hearing. They'd best keep the pace up, though...only three weeks left in the Session!


Of course, the provisions of HB348 related to drug possession penalties got the most attention from media. Despite lots of pressure from the Statewide Association of Prosecutors and some county sheriffs, the drug penalty reforms CCJJ unanimously approved last November are intact here in HB348, "Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments." Many kudos to the sponsors for protecting the integrity of this effort so far!

  • Lawmakers should not believe any of the panicky predictions about these reforms. All the reforms do, is prioritize treatment and recovery for people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Utahns will continue to get help for their addiction problems, they will continue to utilize drug and mental health courts. Sick people won't have to go to prison - and suffer under the burden of a felony conviction for the rest of their lives - as punishment for having a substance abuse problem.
  • NAMI-Utah, USARA, the Disability Law Center, and the ACLU of Utah issued a joint press release yesterday discussing the results of a recent poll that shows Utahns are largely comfortable with this change. Of 551 registered voters surveyed, a strong majority felt that the reduction of simple drug possession from a third degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor is appropriate. You can read the full press release and results attached at this link.


Speaking of drugs, many kudos to Senator Mark Madsen (R-Saratoga Springs) who made a huge splash yesterday by announcing that he would be forcefully running legislation to legalize medical marijuana products for sick Utahns. Check out this great story in the Salt Lake Tribune, featuring Christine Stenquist, a Utah mom whose life has been transformed by medical cannabis. Libertas Institute also profiled Christine, as well Tenille Farr (a Mormon mom from Utah County), in a great online post yesterday.

  • Tenille and Christine deserve a lot of praise for their courage in "outing" themselves as individuals - dealing with serious chronic illnesses and associated chronic debilitating pain - who have used or are using medical cannabis to alleviate their symptoms. We applaud them for taking on this potentially (okay, almost certainly) controversial issue, in support of chronically-ill Utahns who wish to use a medical approach that has proven successful for them - without fear of arrest, incarceration...or, perhaps worst, loss of custody of their children.
  • The ACLU is supportive of the legalization of medical marijuana - in fact, of ALL uses of marijuana. Arrest and conviction for marijuana possession is one of the most common entry points to the criminal justice system in our country, especially for people of color. Providing for the legal use of medical marijuana would be a helpful way to ensure that women like Tenille and Christine are not constantly at risk for arrest and/or incarceration.


And finally, as promised, here are a few bits of criminal justice reform news NOT from the Utah State Legislature, just to round out your week.

  • The Brennan Center for Justice release a BIG report recently, assessing various explanations for the drop in crime across the country in recent years. Not a surprise to the ACLU: sending more people to jail and prison is NOT responsible for the drop in crime. Check out this great post on Vox for the full story.
  • Last night in Salt Lake, there was a town hall about officer-involved shootings. This continues to be a serious problem around the state and country - community members are upset about instances of violence against the public by police officers, law enforcement insists that everything is by the book. Maybe it's time to rewrite the book?
  • Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that he favored a moratorium on execution by lethal injection. No word on how he feels about the firing squad...but you could probably make a solid bet as to where he'd fall on that one.


REMINDER: There is a Prison Relocation Commission meeting next Friday, February 28, at 1:00 p.m. in Room 210 of the Senate Building. Should be an exciting one! And, as always, these meetings are open to the public.


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