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Wait a minute! That's not the reform we approved...

02 March 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

2015-Criminal-Justice-ReformYou may have heard, Rep. Eric Hutchings' criminal justice reform bill - HB 348, "Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments" passed its latest hurdle (House committee hearing) with flying colors!

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

Justice Reinvestment Flies Forward! 

HB 348's first big debut resulted in a unanimous vote of approval, which is great news. So, why were reform supporters grumbling on the way out of the committee hearing?

Well, let me start by saying, the bill that passed out of committee is GOOD, and the ACLU is supportive. The legislation will result result in serious prison bed savings over the next twenty years. It will fund a great deal of research-based treatment. It will prevent dozens and dozens of people from going to prison for simple drug possession. 

The bill committee members approved is not the legislation that the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) researched and recommended, supported with data and analysis. Committee members actually approved a substitute bill, which contained several unfortunate compromises with county prosecutors. It also included a fairly random amendment related to "criminal trespassing," which seems to make the defense for such non-violent petty crimes more difficult, might create some constitutional problems AND - the worst part - has absolutely nothing to do with the entire data-driven initiative undertaken by CCJJ last year in partnership with the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. 

What fell out of the criminal justice reform bill, after lots of pressure from county attorneys? The drug penalty changes that were overwhelmingly supported by CCJJ, the public and partner organizations. Prosecutors are able to bump simple drug possession charges up to the felony level much sooner than recommended by CCJJ for maximum reform impact. There will be no change to the level of penalty for "commercial" drug possession - the efforts CCJJ made to distinguish between people who are selling to make money and those who are selling to support their drug problems have been undone. 

The ACLU of Utah is disappointed that county prosecutors managed to protect these Drug War holdover policies. You're welcome to review (attached to this email) some of the county attorneys' arguments against CCJJ's original reforms, and our answers to those arguments. We're disappointed that the status quo managed another quick win before the bill came before the people's representatives. 

The next step will be a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. Then the bill still needs to move through the Senate. The overwhelmingly positive response of the first hearing, though, bodes very well. Let's just hope the session doesn't end before this bill gets all the required approvals! 

Prison Relocation: Doing the RIGHT thing for the wrong reasons. 

The Prison Relocation Commission (PRC) met for the first time in a LONG time last Friday, to discuss the recommendations it will make to the legislature: add a few new sites to the list, get the list approved, ask for the authority to PICK the site itself. Then, shortly thereafter, the PRC backed away from that latest request - it plans to include the legislature and governor in any site-selection decision that is made. At every point, the relocation has proved to be a hotter issue than legislators anticipated. 

I am surprised that the PRC is backing away from its request to make the site selection decision itself - that seemed, to me, like a politically-savvy move. Let's face it - nobody WANTS a prison. But we all participate in a society that creates the NEED for a prison. We also all celebrate a constitution that guarantees certain important rights to the inmates of a prison - humane and equal treatment, due process, access to legal and medical services, access to religious services and family support. Our aversion to the reality of a prison will always force communities to reject hosting one - no matter how much we all seem to enjoy putting people into them. In order to support a criminal justice system that works, we need a prison that works - and the Utah State Prison at Draper is NOT that prison.

Utah needs better prison facilities than what are currently hosted at Draper - for the mentally ill, for geriatric prisoners, for female inmates, and so on. But no legislator will support the infusion of taxpayer dollars into a new correctional facility - unless there is an undeniable reason to do so (such as, we need the rebuild the prison in a new location). As I told Fox News last Friday, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake our primary prison facilities over alongside substantial criminal justice reform. We shouldn't let knee-jerk rejections of "those people" keep us from doing something good for a population that we are usually quite content to ignore. 

So what do I mean by doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? Probably the main reason lawmakers originally sought to move the prison out of Draper, was more about DRAPER and less about the PRISON. But now the opportunity is on the table - however it got there! - to capitalize on 25 years of research and new standards related to correctional facilities. Anyone who has been to both Draper and Gunnison can attest to the difference several decades of best practices can make. It's far too easy to dismiss the Utah State Prison at Draper as "good enough for those people." 

More as it happens!
Things are moving very fast in these last couple of weeks of the legislative session. I apologize for my increasingly spotty updates! There are so many good things happening up at the Capitol - medical cannabis discussions, forcible entry restrictions, restrains on law enforcement use of technology to surveil communities, and more! - but it's too much to share at the moment. I hope to get back on schedule after March 12!


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