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Best Practices in Criminal Justice: How Does Utah Stack Up?

Last Thursday, analysts from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project made their second major presentation to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, as part of a months-long review of Utah's criminal justice system. The Pew team shared its assessment of how various aspects of Utah’s criminal justice system are or are not comporting with evidence-based practices (EBP).

The full Powerpoint presentation is available for download at the bottom of this page, so you can draw your own conclusions. It's pretty meaty (the presentation was three hours long!)...here's the ACLU of Utah's quick take.

Note: the Pew team also presented a brief data analysis of what's driving Utah's female prison population, which is growing at nearly three times the rate of the male prison population. Kudos to Pew for breaking out this gender-specific data! The implications are important enough to warrant their very own full blog post here.

So what are the basic principles on which criminal justice (CJ) "best practices" are based? Here's a ridiculously quick primer on two key fundamentals:

1. Risk-Need-Responsivity - this formula drives most CJ evidence-based practices these days:

  • The Risk Principle says that a CJ system should focus on offenders who are at the highest risk for reoffending (focusing too much attention on low-risk offenders can actually make them worse).
  • The Need Principle advises identification of an offender's specific criminogenic needs. It doesn't do any good to provide substance abuse treatment to people who don't have a substance abuse problem, or demand that a parolee get a job when her actual need is for mental health treatment and stable housing.
  • The Responsivity Principle prescribes an individualized response to both risk and need. CJ systems should use behavior and treatment approaches that address the specific risk and needs of the individual being treated or supervised.

2. Top Criminogenic Risk and Need Factors - there are eight main factors shown to impact whether someone might be at risk for committing a crime. These factors must be mitigated in order to help an invidual avoid following the criminal path. A judge, correctional officer or AP&P agent needs to know which risk and needs factors apply to a specific individual, so they can focus their resources on those areas. If you want to dig in deep, these guys are the experts.

If these are the guiding principles for good criminal justice practice, how is UTAH doing?
Well, according to Pew, not horrible...but not great. Here are a few major takeaways:

  • There is a LOT of inconsistency in our system. Not all CJ-related agencies, programs and staff are using EBP; those that are, apply the practices somewhat haphazardly. For example, not all judges are aware of the need to formulate sentences that address the individual risks and needs of by a particular offender. A person struggling with serious drug addiction should not receive the same sentence and sanctions as a recreational substance abuser. In Utah, sentences and sanctions are not adequately administered according to the Risk-Need-Responsivity model.
  • The inconsistencies occur not just between courts and Adult Probations & Parole (AP&P) regions, but also depending on geography. In rural areas, offenders struggle to complete substance abuse training, or access assistance for mental health issues. Specialty courts - such as mental health courts and drug courts - are not available everywhere in the state. Even if judges or the Board of Pardons & Parole are inclined to follow evidence-based practices and prescribe treatment as part of an individual’s sentence or supervision, there may be no reasonable way for that individual to comply! When resources for substance abuse treatment are available, they are rarely designed specifically for people who are involved in the criminal justice system.
  • Utah’s system lacks statewide guidelines and standards in key areas. For example, AP&P has struggled to standardize the reasons for which parolees and probations are given technical violations, and judges vary in how they respond to those violations. A probationer could be sent to prison after four technical violations...or fifteen. There is a huge range in the amount of jail time that is used to sanction probation and parole violators - and the sanction isn't necessarily proportionate to the severity of the violation. There aren't standard requirements for treatment providers who are serving the justice-involved population.
  • We are increasing sentence lengths for no good reason. Emerging research shows that sending people to prison for longer sentences does not necessarily reduce recidivism. However, in Utah - if you recall from last month! - prison sentences are getting longer, and lengthier prison sentences appear to be a primary driver of our prison population. No one would argue that one reason people are sent to prison is to be punished for the commission of crime. However, there is no rehabilitative or public safety purpose accomplished by locking someone up for eight years and five months, instead of just eight years, for a non-violent property crime. Those extra months add up, though, in thousands of wasted tax dollars and opportunity costs.

The main thrust of the Pew presentation was that while Utah is making some positive progress in its use of evidence-based practices, there is a lack of statewide structure for the implementation and support of those practices. Unsurprisingly, there is a lack of BUDGETARY support, too. Existing resources aren’t correctly focused on the highest-risk offenders, much less on the appropriate criminogenic needs of those individuals. And, as we discussed last week, there are significant shortfalls in much-needed treatment and reentry resources.

If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, or about criminal justice reform in Utah more generally, please contact ACLU of Utah Public Policy Advocate Anna Brower at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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