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Jury Still Out on “Justice Reinvestment” Effort

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2014 Fall Newsletter >>

It’s been nine months since Governor Gary Herbert, in his State of the State address, called for reform of Utah’s criminal justice system.  

After hours and hours of data collection, number crunching, policy research and public input, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), assisted by analysts from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, has settled on some reform recommendations meant to bend Utah’s prison population trend downward.  

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. The Department of Corrections (UDC) is dramatically revamping how Adult Probation & Parole (AP&P) agents engage with those under state supervision in the community. 

UDC is working with substance abuse and mental health treatment providers to ensure that probationers and parolees get the treatment they need to safely and productively reenter community life.

Less encouraging is CCJJ’s work to address Utah’s other primary prison population driver: length of stay. 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 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 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. With leadership and support from Utah’s Sentencing Commission, CCJJ appears to be on track to recommend that these individuals be re-directed to community-based alternatives rather than expensive prison terms. 

However, there has been essentially no progress toward ensuring that the practices of the Board of Pardons and Parole comport with these reforms. 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.  

While Pew analysts researched several promising reforms while working with CCJJ’s “Release Policies Subcommittee” – such as formalizing when and why the Board can depart drastically from the official sentencing guidelines, opportunities for recourse by inmates who are incarcerated long past their initial court-calculated sentence guidelines – no substantive recommendations have been advanced. 

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. 

CCJJ will vote on its final recommendations in mid-November, then shape them 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 (to be relocated from Draper; see accompanying story). 

We anticipate, however, that Utah’s prison growth will not be sufficiently reversed without addressing the increasingly long sentences served by inmates under current Board of Pardons and Parole practices. Only time will tell. 

Keep up with all of our work on Criminal Justice Reinvestment in Utah at www.acluutah.org/criminal-justice

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