If you're anything like the rest of us, you've been blissfully tuned out of all the usual "work-and-society-and-boring-meetings" news for a couple of months. Well, summer's over, and it's time to get ourselves up to speed on how the state's criminal justice reform efforts are coming along.
Note: if you've been tuned out so long that you can't even remember what I'm talking about, read this Tribune story by Robert Gehrke about the state's "Justice Reinvestment" initiative, undertaken with the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.
The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) officially launched the effort with Pew in April 2014. Since we are five months in (though the media are just now starting to pay attention!), this seems a good time to take stock of the effort.
To refresh your memory of the Justice Reinvestment process and timeline:
- Justice Reinvestment began with Pew collecting data, conducting research and investigating Utah's criminal justice system.
- Pew reviewed the data with CCJJ to identify what is driving Utah's prison population growth.
- Pew evaluated how well Utah is incorporating criminal justice "best practices" into various aspects of its system.
- CCJJ will work with Pew to craft legislation, to be put before the state Legislature in early 2015, that will propose statutory changes aimed at reducing the prison population.
Right now, CCJJ and Pew - observed, informed and lobbied by dozens of community advocates, county representatives, correctional professionals, treatment providers and prisoners' families - are elbow-deep in the "sausage-making" part of Justice Reinvestment.
Last month, CCJJ split itself into three working subgroups, aimed at three different areas that are contributing to growth in the prison population. The three subgroups are: Sentencing Policies, Release Policies and Supervision & Treatment. They are tasked with making recommendations as to what should be included in the Justice Reinvestment legislation for 2015.
The Sentencing Policies subgroup is meant to examine the state's sentencing guidelines, as Pew has identified increasingly long sentences as a major driver of Utah's prison population. Specifically, more Utahns are going to prison for low-level third degree felonies, such as drug posession and theft.
CCJJ is likely to tweak the sentencing guidelines for these non-violent drug and property offenders. This might include curbing "drug-related enhancements," such as those for committing crimes in "Drug-Free Zones." Since such zones include schools and churches, just about every square inch of Utah (except maybe the West Desert...) is a Drug-Free Zone!
Still undecided is whether this group will have the political courage to tackle Utah's large and growing population of individuals incarcerated (and serving longer and longer sentences) for sex offenses. FYI: you can also review a memo (at the bottom of this page) written by national and local ACLU staff, which shows how Utah's approach to sex offenses differ from those of our neighbor states.
The Release Policies subgroup is meant to examine, among other things, the practices of the Board of Pardons and Parole, since this entity plays a vital role in determining actual sentence length. Pew's data analysis shows that the Board is straying above the sentencing guidelines more often than ten years ago, and when it does, it is straying even further than before.
So far, this group has discussed the possibility of presumptive parole for low-level offenders, a formalized system of awarding "earned time off," caps on prison time for parole revocations, and expanded use of current halfway house beds.
It is unsure if these policy changes will impact the increasing length of sentences for less-politically-sympathetic offenders, given the indeterminate sentencing system in Utah that concentrates a lot of responsibility with the Board of Pardons and Parole. I recommend this Salt Lake Tribune article from last fall - note the use of the term "board-determined life sentences" - for more background on this phenomenon. You can also check out our recent Op-Ed, written with the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, on the Board of Pardons and Parole.
The Supervision & Treatment subgroup is meant to examine how the state can more effectively conduct supervision of offenders in the community, after they are released from prison. This includes expanding treatment access and options for people who have substance abuse disorders and mental health issues.
This group has been discussing actions that will bring Adult Probation & Parole (AP&P) policies in line with evidence-based practices - luckily, AP&P Director Geri Miller-Fox and Sentencing Commission Director Jennifer Valencia have already put in many hours drafting formal guidelines for AP&P agents' work. The groups is also looking into adopting statewide standards for the treatment of justice-involved individuals, and will likely have additional recommendations.
What happens next? The subgroups will continue meeting throughout September and into October. CCJJ members will discuss recommendations from the subgroups, and decide which policy changes will be included in the Justice Reinvestment Legislation.
Once the draft legislation is completed in November (anticipated), the ACLU of Utah will decide whether it is in support of some, all or none of the Justice Reinvesment legislation. We may also recommend accompanying legislation and policy action that will enhance the effectiveness of the official legislation. Be sure to check back often!