The Utah legislature wrapped up 45 days of fast-paced lawmaking, and the ACLU of Utah was there for it all. We tracked over 65 bills, defeated and/or neutralized many, and thankfully worked to pass legislation enhancing civil liberties as well. With serious consideration being given to issues such as repealing the death penalty, and legalizing medical marijuana, it’s clear that we are moving the needle here in Utah, and that is cause for celebration!
Criminal justice issues were front and center in the 2016 session, with some major ACLU priorities getting significant consideration. For example, SB 189 Death Penalty Amendments, would have prospectively repealed the death penalty in Utah. The bill made it just one vote shy of passage on the final night of the legislature. For this bill to have made such progress in a state that in 2015 enacted legislation permitting use of the firing squad, is a huge victory, and gives us hope for success in the 2017 legislative session.
The ACLU, along with many coalition partners, successfully supported the passing of HB 405 Juvenile Sentencing Amendments, to do away with life without the possibility of parole as a potential sentence for juvenile offenders. This bill is consistent with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, as well as the philosophy behind the recent criminal justice reforms enacted by the state of Utah.
We maintained efforts to reform our criminal justice system in Utah by supporting SB 187 Reclassification of Misdemeanors, which passed and reduces a list of misdemeanors to infractions. The practical effect of this legislation is that many misdemeanors which carried a sentence of possible jail time are now considered infractions, which can only be punished by fines.
We spoke in favor of HB 388 State Job Applications Process, the so called “ban the box” legislation. This bill would mean that state employers could no longer ask about a criminal record on an initial job application. We know that barriers to employment for those coming out of the criminal justice system is a real problem and one that contributes to recidivism. This bill would have created greater opportunities for people to find employment regardless of prior criminal activity. Unfortunately, the bill did not make it all the way through the legislative process, but it was generally well received and hopefully will fare better in 2017.
We supported the effort to legalize medical marijuana by way of SB 73 Medical Cannabis Act. The ACLU believes that nobody should go to jail or prison for using marijuana, especially not those who are using it to treat the symptoms of very serious chronic illnesses. This bill was substantially watered down during the session, and ultimately failed to make it through both legislative bodies. It was however, a serious enough effort that opponents developed a competing bill, SB 89 Cannabis-based Medicine Amendments. We did not support SB 89 because it would not have provided meaningful access to medicine for patients. While in the end neither bill was enacted, the fact that this topic made such amazing progress in our legislature is a clear sign that this issue is not likely to go away!
Another huge ACLU priority is the reformation of our system of public defense. For years, the ACLU has been dedicated to bringing attention to our constitutionally failing system. After the release of a damning report by the 6th Amendment Center in late 2015, we expected major legislative changes. Our expectations were not entirely realized, however. We actively tracked the succesful progress of SB 155 Indigent Defense Commission, which creates an advisory commission with the goal of eventually setting standards for the provision of indigent defense in our state, accompanied by an insufficient amount of funding. Unfortunately, the bill does nothing for those in our criminal justice system whose 6th Amendment rights are being violated today.
Policing issues continue to be a focus, both for the ACLU of Utah and the Utah legislature. After years of work with various stakeholders, the ACLU supported HB 300 Body-worn Cameras for Law Enforcement Officers, a bill that creates statewide standards for the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers. The bill also establishes when body camera footage may be released to the public and the media. The bill goes a long way toward striking an appropriate balance between protecting privacy and promoting officer accountability. HB 300 passed with near unanimous support.
The ACLU also partnered with law enforcement to pass legislation targeting the school to prison pipeline. Racially Just Utah and the ACLU of Utah worked closely with legislators to draft HB 460 School Resource Officers and School Administrators Training and Agreement, which requires better training and contracting for police officers who work in our schools. HB 460, which passed, received broad support from community activists, education leaders and law enforcement. This bill will result in state-wide, consistent efforts to train police officers who work in Utah schools.
The ACLU always lobbies for equality and this year was no exception! We joined with the newly formed Utah Women’s Coalition to run a trio of bills to promote and advance the rights of Utah women. Of these, SB 59 Antidiscrimination and Workplace Accommodations Revisions, was enacted into law. SB 59 requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant and nursing employees. This bill will ensure that Utah women are not forced to choose between a job and having a family.
On a more negative note, two harmful bills were introduced this session with the aim of restricting reproductive rights. SB 234 Protecting Unborn Children Amendments, passed and will require the use of fetal anesthetic for a pregnancy terminated after 20 weeks. We are deeply concerned about the burden this new requirement is likely to pose for Utah women.
HB 442 Abortion Amendments, was also introduced and would have banned all non-surgical abortions in the state. In practice, this would essentially ban any abortion after 9 weeks. Thankfully, the bill did not even get a legislative hearing, and therefore did not advance.
We were very disappointed to see the Legislature fail to advance SB 107 Hate Crimes Amendments, and the accompanying SJR 13 Joint Resolution Amending Rules of Evidence, which would have provided meaningful tools for prosecutors to protect Utahns from hate crimes. The bills enjoyed wide support; ranging from religious and community groups to law enforcement and government officials. We expect this legislation to be reintroduced in the 2017 legislative session.
All good things must come to an end, and this is true for the Utah Legislature! But the ACLU of Utah will be working over the next several months to prepare our agenda for the 2017 session. Stay tuned!