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"Justice Reinvestment" Effort Lumbers On...Destination Unclear

Prison-dormThe state's "Justice Reinvestment" effort is creeping ever closer to reality!

Well, we still have to deal with legislative support, funding, and eventual implementation (oh, and on-going oversight)...but we ARE getting closer to finally answering Governor Herbert's charge to reform the criminal justice system, made so many months ago in his State of the State speech.

At the October meeting of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), the chairs of three policy subcommittees (Sentencing, Release, Program/Supervision) presented their final policy recommendations to the full Commission.

Note: These recommendations have changed little from those discussed in September - there's more detail now, and some policy suggestions have dropped off the table, unfortunately. You can read our report on that September meeting here.

Another Note: You can also download and review the recommendations presented on October 9 – that presentation can be found at the bottom of this post.

We encourage you, as always, to formulate your own opinions about how the Justice Reinvestment effort is coming to fruition...but here’s the ACLU take on that meeting!

First and foremost, we are happy to report that CCJJ’s recommendations could take a big bite out of one of Utah’s big prison population drivers: parole and probation revocations. You know, the people who are in prison because they committed some violation (usually technical, not a new crime) while on comunity supervision.

Thanks to serious and thoughtful work in the Program/Supervision policy subcommittee, led by Department of Corrections (UDC) Director Rollin Cook, we could see higher statewide standards for mental health and substance abuse treatment, and more state funding to expand access to that treatment.

In addition, Director Cook and his team at UDC are dramatically revamping how Adult Probation & Parole (AP&P) agents engage with individuals who are released from prison into state supervision in the community.

UDC is working with substance abuse and mental health treatment providers – who have been actively and enthusiastically engaged in the Justice Reinvestment process from the beginning - to ensure that probationers and parolees get the treatment they need to safely and productively reenter community life. This includes building up county programs and improving access statewide - including in rural areas.

So that’s good! 

But less encouraging is the work so far to address Utah’s other primary prison population driver: length of stay.

As we know from Pew’s hours and hours of data analysis and research...Compared to ten years ago, Utah state prisoners are staying longer in prison for the same crimes. There is no evidence that these longer prison stays are keeping the public safer – but there is ample proof that the lengthy stays are costing Utah taxpayers a lot of money.

Pew’s research indicates that Utah’s prison population – which is growing despite a national trend finally moving in the opposite direction – isn’t being swelled by more prisoners are going in. Crime is down, and so are commitments to prison for new crimes. Rather, the prison population is growing because prisoners are being kept longer and longer.

CCJJ’s Sentencing policy subcommittee, led by former Senator Carlene Walker (and chair of the Sentencing Commission), has recommended changes to the state’s sentencing guidelines, to reduce the number of people going to prison for drug possession and non-violent crimes. CCJJ appears to be on track to recommend that these individuals be re-directed to community-based alternatives rather than expensive prison terms.

….Well, that is, if stubborn county prosecutors and their legislative representatives don’t stand in the way of these moderate reforms. Which has certainly happened in other states that have undertaken Justice Reinvestment.

Still, we are hopeful that not only will CCJJ make some solid sentencing reform recommenations, but also that the Utah Sentecing Commission will continue to work on improving the state's sentencing guidelines. So, that is ALSO good!

But there has been essentially no progress toward ensuring that the practices of the Board of Pardons and Parole comport with these sentencing reforms. The Release policy subcommittee, led by Board Chair Angela Miklos, has produced no substantive suggestions for reducing length of stay through Board improvements.hqdefault

Well, that’s not quite fair. Several key members of the Release policy subcommittee – including Court Administrator Daniel Becker and Public Education Representative Kathleen Christy – have been outspoken advocates for robust data collection and reporting to better assess Board performance with regards to length of stay. There were also good discussions, early on, about how to better direct the Board’s departures from sentencing guidelines, and how to improve the "rationale form" used by the Board to describe their decisions to deny or grant parole.

A quick word about why this matters:

The Board of Pardons and Parole is the singular entity in Utah that determines that actual amount of time every state inmate spends behind bars.

In Utah, sentencing guidelines are just that: guidelines. Judges sentence convicted individuals to broad, indeterminate sentences, such as “one to ten years,” or “five years to life.” They then calculate more specific recommendations for time served based on various aggravating and mitigating factors unique to each case.

But once an individual is incarcerated, the actual length of sentence is determined by the Board – which can consider whatever factors and evidence it deems appropriate, and for whose decisions there exists no appeals process or judicial recourse. 

That means that without making thoughtful, research-driven changes to Board practices, Utah’s Justice Reinvestment effort will fall far short of the Governor’s charge of real reform.

So what happens next?

CCJJ will vote on its final recommendations on November 12. Those recommendations will then be shaped into legislation to be introduced in the 2015 session. The reforms, if adopted, are predicted to make an impact on the eventual size of Utah’s new prison facility (as shown in the presentation at the end of this blog).

We’re feeling a little less hopeful, however, as things move forward… While the Justice Reinvesment reforms are going to be a step in the right direction, we just can’t see how Utah’s prison growth can be sufficiently interrupted without addressing the increasingly long sentences served by inmates under current Board of Pardons and Parole practices.

But there’s still time for CCJJ to ensure that this issue is addressed, so cross your fingers! It would be great to NOT build those extra 2,700 prison beds over the next 20 years.  

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