Before Utah builds new prison, it should build new prison policy
Imagine an issue that conservative Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, liberal Democratic (and founder of the Congressional Black Caucus) Rep. John Conyers, and conservative Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry all agree on. That issue is prison reform.
It entails rethinking all aspects of prisons and criminal justice, including the length of prison sentences, the emphasis on rehabilitation, tailoring sentencing to the individual and alternatives to incarceration.
Yet Utah is giving very serious consideration to building a whole new prison setting aside for the moment whether the prison should be moved in the first place without giving any thought to the impact of these crucial issues.
The Legislature created the Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) to study the relocation of the Draper prison because some believe that the property is too valuable for a prison. But planning the possible construction of new prisons, or expanding the use of county jails to house convicted felons, without considering reform of prison policies is to put the cart in front of the horse. There is no reason not to be thorough. The land isn't going anywhere.
The amazing and diverse movement to change prison policy should be a wake-up call to PRADA, the legislature and the governor. Incredibly, the legislation that created PRADA did not include any mandate for PRADA to evaluate prison policy. Rather, it was just whether and how to move the prison. This is an unacceptable omission that renders any PRADA recommendation useless.
Utah is incarcerating more people than ever. Our prison population in 1980 was 928. Today it is 7,132. That's an increase of over 760 percent. Utah's population increased 95 percent from 1980 to 2012. America has the distinction of imprisoning more people than any other country in the world. Should these trends continue?
Did you know more people were sent to Utah's prisons last year because of parole violations rather than being convicted of a felony? What should be done with those convicted of non-violent drug crimes? If substance abuse and mental illness are major causes of crime, should Utah expand its use of drug courts and mental health courts? With electronic ankle bracelets, as well as monitored phones, cars and e-mails, many people now in prison could be monitored closely outside of prison. When a person sits in jail, he not only costs taxpayers a lot of money, but he is also not working, not paying taxes, not paying restitution, not caring for his family, and not otherwise contributing to our society.
The PRADA legislation does not require that a recommendation be reached in time for the upcoming legislative session. That's fortunate because there's a lot of thinking and planning that needs to be done first. Any rushed recommendation that ignores prison policy so a few developers can make a few bucks is a mistake.
Indeed, the most prudent thing for the governor, Legislature and PRADA to do is to plan properly for a prison that aligns with the criminal justice system of the future and not the past; a model for the rest of the country.
Eric Rumple is retired from a career in corporate finance. He analyzes public policy matters for Alliance for a Better Utah.