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The price of prison
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Freedom isn't free. Neither is prison.

Watching statistics that show the average length of a Utah prison inmate's time behind bars rising, the man in charge of the state's Corrections Department last week asked the Legislature for $30 million to add beds to the prison in Gunnison. Corrections Director Tom Patterson also wants lawmakers to at least partially catch up the shortfall created because the amount of money allocated to treatment programs for sex offenders — a growing percentage of inmates — hasn't been increased in 16 years.

The two are obviously interrelated. The willingness of either the Corrections Department or Utah Board of Pardons and Parole to let any sex offenders out of prison without first having them undergo some specific treatment designed to guard against further offenses is, rightly, small.

The effectiveness of such treatment may be questionable in some cases. But it sure doesn't work if it isn't offered. And the process should help prison and parole officials determine which offenders deserve to be released and which do not.

Meanwhile, the State Crime Lab is reporting that the average time needed to process crime scene evidence has risen from three weeks to 80 days. That is bad news for those who want to catch crooks. It's worse news for innocent people who languish in jail, maybe even copping pleas for crimes they didn't commit, because the forensic evidence that would have cleared them comes back in three months, rather than the 20 minutes it takes on TV crime dramas.

And that's also what happens when an agency's budget is cut 30 percent since 2008.

Utah is anything but unique in that people almost never get elected to office by promising to 1) increase spending on anything, or 2) provide any kind of service or consideration to people who have been arrested and charged with a crime. That's why the eternal promise to lock 'em up and throw away the key almost never comes with an accounting of how much all those locks will cost. Nor does it often include an admission that not everyone who is arrested is really guilty, or that not everyone who is really guilty is so dangerous that society requires them to be locked away for a long period of time.

Numbers to be crunched include not only the cost of housing inmates, or processing evidence in a timely manner, but also the loss to the economy and the cost to state programs when families are broken up, wage-earners locked away and educational opportunities disrupted, perhaps permanently.

Justice isn't free. But, if all things are considered, neither is simple retribution.

Justice requires thought, money
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