By now, we’ve all seen the buttons, the hand signs, the t-shirts:
“No Prison In (Insert Your Community Here).”
The residents of South Jordan, Saratoga Springs, Salt Lake City, and other sites identified by the Prison Relocation Commission (PRC) as potential homes for a re-located Utah State Prison (now in Draper). have made their opinions clear: they don’t want the prison to be "dumped" anywhere near them. And they MEAN it! In fact, several sites have managed to agitate themselves completely off the PRC's list: only the sites in west Salt Lake City, south Eagle Mountain, and near the Miller Sportspark in Tooele County remain.
However, if residents of any municipality that ended up on the Prison Relocation Commission’s list of potential sites don’t want a prison to be built in their neighborhood, they might want to swap that “No Prison Here” t-shirt for one that declares: “Criminal Justice Reform NOW!” Because, the experts agree, if Utah doesn’t make some big changes, we will likely need to build another prison, whether we relocate the Draper prison or not.
Last year, the PRC’s design consultant told policymakers that, if no reforms are made to Utah’s criminal justice system, our state will need an additional 2,700 prison beds by 2033.
That is more than half the number of beds currently at the main prison in Draper, and more than all the beds at the ancillary prison in Gunnison.
It may indeed be true that Draper is the perfect place for the prison (as Utahns living near other proposed sites loudly assert). But we should not just keep adding more and more housing facilities to the Draper site to accomodate this projected future prison population growth. The Draper "campus" is already larger than best practices dictate; most modern prisons house fewer than 2,500 inmates at a single site.
And that reminds me - based on the projected growth in the FEMALE inmate population alone (as well as national trends), Utah will probably have to at least build a new women's facility sometime in the next ten years. Dept. of Corrections statistics show that the Timpanogos Facility at the Draper site is very close to operational capacity. Additionally, that structure was never meant to house female offenders - it is a repurposed correctional facility for young male prisoners, an inmate population that demands different structural and programming features.
So even if the current prison stays in Draper, we’ll likely need to build a new prison – boasting nearly three thousand beds – if legislators don’t pass the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ)’s proposed “Justice Reinvestment” legislation in the 2015 session. And don’t you think a new prison would be built in one of the areas that have already met the PRC’s criteria for relocation?
The Justice Reinvestment legislation – to be sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings (R-Kearns) and Sen. Stuart Adams (R-Layton) – contains 18 moderate, but highly significant, reforms. If this legislation is passed, Utah can avoid building nearly 100% of those 2,700 prison beds. If funded and executed with serious commitment by the state, the reforms might even be able to reduce our overall prison population. (The full report on these recommendations is available for download at the bottom of this post).
One of the Justice Reinvestment recommendations is to lower the criminal penalty for simple drug possession from a third degree felony to a class A misdemeanor. Though several other states and the federal government have already made such a change, some county attorneys and sheriffs have spoken out against it. Well, that's putting it mildly. The Statewide Association of Prosecutors has testified at every opportunity as to the
But this moderate reform alone could empty between 350 and 400 state prison beds within the three years – creating room in our prison for violent offenders who actually need to be there.
Residents of the potential prison relocation sites obviously feel strongly about not having the prison moved from Draper to their respective communities. These residents, and their elected officials, have raised some fair points. Concerns about providing water and other public services to a new prison facility, and about losing future property tax income, have some merit.
But if they don’t want to fight this same fight in ten or even five years, they should strongly encourage their state legislators to support the Justice Reinvestment recommendations – all of them – when that legislation comes before them this session. And that includes those little tweaks to Utah's drug possession penalties, despite all the dire warnings from prosecutors and law enforcement that the sky will fall if a couple of moderate (and long-overdue) changes are made.
And if all of Utah's residents don't want to deal with all this prison (re)location drama again in the very near future, well, we'd ALL better start writing our legislators and asking them to support the Justice Reinvestment legislation. You can find out who your state senator and state representative are by going to Utah's Legislative website at le.utah.gov.
Just click on the "Legislators" tab on the left, and go to "Search by Address/Map." Then send YOUR elected officials a quick email telling them to PASS THE FULL CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BILL* sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings and Sen. Stuart Adams - with the drug law changes, will full funding and with their unwavering support!
* The bill is currently unnumbered, but is likely to be named "Criminal Justice Amendments."