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Update: Criminal Justice Reform Effort Appears Serious...So Far

Last Tuesday, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice had an exciting meeting about the state's ongoing "Justice Reinvestment" effort. During this meeting, all the CCJJ subcommittees - working groups focused on a particular part of the criminal justice system needing reform - reported back to the full Commisjustice-665x300sion as to their progress.

Before I get into what each subcommittee reported, I'd like to share some cautious optimism. Actually, I'd like to share some real excitement about how well Utah's Justice Reinvestment process is going - especially when compared to other states that didn't fully embrace the possibility of meaningful reform.

Many other states - from Texas and South Carolina, to Hawaii and Oregon - have engaged in Justice Reinvestment efforts in the past eight years. Some have been heralded as true successes. In South Carolina, for example, significant enough reforms were made - and backed by serious enough funding! - to result in an 8% drop in the state's overall prison population. South Carolina policymakers engaged in sentencing reform, reform of paroling and release policies, expansion of community-based treatment options, and more.

Republican South Carolina Senator George E. Campsen III remarked of the state's omnibus Justice Reinvestment legisiation: “This approach is soft on the taxpayer and smart on crime. It is soft on the taxpayer because it will reduce the need to build more prisons. It is smart on crime because community-based alternatives such as restitution and drug courts entail more accountability and have been proven to reduce recidivism.”

Senator Campsen and his colleagues in South Carolina took the reform charge from their Governor, Chief Justice, Senate President and House Speaker seriously. As a result, the state interrupted an explosive trend in prison population growth, and actually realized a decrease in the need for expensive prison beds. Note: You can download and read Pew's report on South Carolina's success at the bottom of this page.

Don't forget the very practical reason Utah needs its Justice Reinvestment to have an impact like South Carolina's efforts. Whether our reforms are meaningful or insubstantial, could make the difference between Utah needing to spend $1 BILLION or more on a new prison or several hundred million dollars LESS than that.

By contrast, in Oklahoma, the state's criminal justice reform effort (which was NOT assisted by the Pew Public Safety Peformance Project, as is Utah's) focused narrowly on community supervision practices, and did not address the issues that were identified as driving the state's prison population: increasingly long sentences and lack of community-based alternatives for low-risk offenders. Accordingly, Oklahoma's reform legislation has been criticized by policy experts in the state. The reforms that were proposed, were not adequately funded.

The ACLU of Utah is certain that Utah's Justice Reinvestment effort won't produce all the reforms our state needs. But what we've witnessed so far has made us hopeful that Utah will go the route of serious reform, as South Carolina did, and not squander this incredible opportunity to make positive changes.

Now, bear in mind, none of the policy options being considered by CCJJ are official recommendations yet. When CCJJ convenes again on October 9, the members will vote on which policy reforms they would like to include in an official Justice Reinvestment bill during the 2015 Session.

However, the robust and in-depth discussions happening in the CCJJ subcommittees are very encouraging at this point. The CCJJ members who are at the table appear to be taking the effort seriously. The conversations are inclusive of the viewpoints of crime victims, inmates and their families, proscutors and defense attorneys, judges and court administrators, correctional professionals and county sheriffs, and even members of the general public who are concerned about the state of our criminal justice system.

Here is brief recap of what the subcommittees reported to CCJJ at the September 9 meeting. Note: you don't have to rely on MY interpretation of the reports - the Powerpoint presentation from that meeting is available to download and review at the bottom of the page!

The Sentencing Policies Subcommittee has so far discussed: 

  • Restructuring drug possession sentences (and distinguishing them from "commercial drug offenses").
  • Reconsidering what physical areas can be considered "drug free zones" for purposes of sentencing enhancements.
  • Updating how probation revocations are handled, in terms of time served (currently, revoked people have their original sentence essentially reinstated, with no credit for time served on probation or in jail).
  • Transforming some sentencing enhancements to "aggravating factors" to be considered by a judge during sentencing.
  • The impacts that these changes could have on our county jails (specifically, the need for supportive funding and county-level policy adapations). 

The Sentencing Group indicated that its "next steps" will include discusssing diversion options and pre-sentence screening and assessment options, as well as calculating what sort of bed/dollar impact these policy options could have. 

The Release Policies Subcommittee has so far discussed: 

  • Standardizing (and creating a formal policy for) the awarding of "earned time credit" for inmates by the Board of Pardons and Parol.
  • How to streamline parole for certain categories of non-violent offenders, to eliminate administrative burdens on the Board and its hearing officers.
  • Reconsidering standard lengths of stay in prison for technical revocations for parolees, to bring those lengths in line with evidence-based practices.
  • Increasing halfway house capacity to afford the Department of Corrections more non-prison options for sanctioning parole and probation violators.
  • Collaborative transition planning for individuals being released, to increase likelihood of success.

The Release group has indicated that its ongoing discussions will include the following topics: release options to help deal with aging and mentally ill prisoners (inmates with low risk and special needs); a framework and/or transparent guidelines for Board of Pardons and Parole departures from the Sentencing Commission's state sentencing guidelines (which are non-binding on the Board); additional training and support for hearing officers and board members; and greater support for data collection and outcome tracking by the Board of Pardons and Parole. 

The Program and Supervision Subcommittee has so far discussed: 

  • Empowering the Sentencing Commission to create an official matrix of sanctions/incentives for probationers and parolees.
  • Establishing earned compliance credit for people on probation or parole.
  • Developing statewide community treatment standards and oversight.

This group's next steps will be to discuss reinvestment options for treatment programs, improved reentry planning, and performance incentive planning. 

For the public's information, here is a list of planned CCJJ meetings - both for the full commission as well as for subcommittees working in the aforementioned specific policy areas:

 To suggest corrections or express concerns with the content of this blog post, please don't heistate to contact Anna Brower, Public Policy Advocate for the ACLU of Utah, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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