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Subcommittee: How and why are Utahns are being sent to prison?

Panel is tasked with recommending solutions for state’s “revolving door.”

First Published Aug 18 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 18 2014 12:17 pm

A group of legislators, judges, lawyers and state officials met Thursday to take on a daunting task: keeping Utah’s ballooning prison population in check.

It was the first meeting of this subcommittee assembled to offer the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) recommendations on how the state can better tailor its laws and manage the men and women who land in Utah’s state courtrooms.

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Gov. Gary Herbert has called upon the state to put an end to the "revolving door" of the criminal justice system in the state.

Part of doing that, said former Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights, is getting to the root of how and why Utahns are being sent to prison in the first place.

That includes taking a critical look at the state’s statutes and asking: Are these laws really protecting people? Or are they creating a system wrought with unfair practices and overly harsh penalties?

The group has six weeks to cobble together a list of concrete recommendations.

On Thursday, as the conversation meandered from non-violent crimes to drug law and sex offenders, it became clear that six weeks likely won’t be enough to tackle every issue in the state’s sentencing guidelines. But, criminal justice expert and adviser Len Engel said, it’s a start.

Utah’s prison population has been growing steadily for the past decade.

More than half of new inmates — 63 percent, according to a recently released report by Pew Charitable Trusts — are being imprisoned for non-violent crimes.

The majority of those are drug crimes, burglary and theft.

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More than a fifth of these non-violent offenders have no prior felony convictions, according to the report.

This came as a surprise to several members of the subcommittee — lawyers and judges all, who said that in their experience, offenders with little to no criminal history are ordered to serve probation rather than time behind bars.

"These are the folks that are now taking up some fairly expensive space in your prison system, the offenders at the lower end of the criminal justice spectrum," Engel said.

Several programs are already in place in Utah for dealing with offenders who may need treatment more than they need a stint in prison — drug court, mental health court, in-patient rehabilitation programs. But the funding for such diversion efforts has dwindled. Several programs, such as an in-depth assessment offered to sex offenders and pre-prison drug diversion programs, have been shut down over the past decade.

"[The assessment] allowed us to have the most in-depth, thorough, researched information and allowed judges to make more relevant and informed decisions about what to do with offenders," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who sits on the subcommittee. "We can react to it emotionally or we can react to it based on information. … Once that’s gone, you’re more likely to respond by going with the most safe option — that’s prison."

The two-hour meeting was more a brainstorming session, meant to hear all sides and give the group an idea of what they want to focus on in the weeks ahead.

They seemed to favor tackling questions of how to handle non-violent criminals and drug offenders, and whether these people are being helped or hurt by a system designed to punish and protect. Preliminary recommendations would be presented at the next meeting. Utah’s aggressive drug laws became the focus of the conversation more than once.

Drug-free zones around schools and churches, designed to keep controlled substances away from children, are often the basis for more serious charges and, ultimately, harsher penalties for drug offenders — regardless of whether there was any actual risk of children being exposed to the drugs.

"We could reduce the zone, focus on the location where kids actually are — maybe not the high school, but the grammar school, the day-care center — we’ve seen this in other states, so you just need to find another marker," Engel said. "If the intent is to protect kids, within a reasonable distance, decide what that is."

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