Across the nation, policymakers are revising age-old approaches to incarceration. In the last five years, 26 states have reduced crime rates and prisoners behind bars, saving billions of taxpayer dollars without compromising public safety. The consensus of decades past—that more prisons, and prisoners, mean less crime—has shifted to embrace a better, data-driven way of keeping our streets safe. Unfortunately, Utah’s criminal justice system is falling behind.
While Utah has historically kept its incarceration rate moderately low, our prison population grew by 22 percent over the past 10 years. This can be partially attributed to locking up more dangerous, violent criminals and sex offenders (a critical purpose of prison and a justifiable cost). But state data reveal that we are sending more nonviolent offenders to prison than we did a decade ago and we are keeping them behind bars for longer periods.
This trend bucks a robust body of research showing diminishing public safety returns when we lock up more and more nonviolent offenders. It also comes at a huge cost to the taxpayer. Last year alone, Utah taxpayers spent roughly $270 million on our corrections budget. Absent reform, we are on target to increase our prison population by another 37 percent—some 2,700 new prison beds—in the next two decades.
About four years ago, I was astounded when I saw a simple chart comparing California’s spending on prisons and higher education, which piqued my interest in the topic. The chart formed an almost perfect "X" from 1980 to 2010: prison spending rapidly accelerated as higher education spending fell dramatically. Today the situation is even worse; despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to reform the increasingly overcrowded system, California has spent $2 billion more on prisons than it did in 2011. At the same time, California college students continue to see double-digit tuition hikes because of reduced state commitment/ability to fund higher education. This troubling trend is clearly not sustainable for California or any other state headed in that direction.
There is a better approach that’s been proven to work. The past three decades have brought advances in working with nonviolent offenders, including improved probation and parole supervision, drug and mental health courts, better technology to monitor offenders outside of prison and highly trained law enforcement. When nonviolent offenders have access to these alternatives, they are less likely to return to prison and are better equipped to re-enter society as law-abiding citizens — all while saving valuable taxpayer dollars.
Accordingly, I was heartened to see leaders from all three branches of our state government announce their commitment to increase public safety while reducing corrections spending. In a collective call to action, Gov. Gary Herbert, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Speaker Becky Lockhart, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant and Attorney General Sean Reyes directed the inter-branch Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to develop comprehensive recommendations for reform. The commission will partner with national experts in criminal justice policy, including the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, to assess the state’s practices and review the latest research on reducing recidivism and crime. This fall, the commission will roll out a reform package to cut back on corrections spending, avoid additional prison growth and invest tax dollars in targeted strategies proven to reduce reoffending.
By taking on this task, Utah aims to join a diverse list of states that have achieved more public safety at a lower cost to taxpayers, including Georgia, Mississippi, South Dakota and Texas. Indeed, states have been so successful at safely controlling prison growth that Congress is now considering similar reforms (including bills sponsored by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Mike Lee) for nonviolent offenders in the federal prison system.
Today’s call for change sends the message that we must hold corrections spending to the same standard as any other area of government. I agree with state leaders that we can make smarter public safety investments. Where alternatives to prison are more effective at reforming nonviolent offenders, we should use them—even better when those alternatives also cost much less, freeing up more dollars for other priorities such as higher education.
Kirk L. Jowers is director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Caplin & Drysdale.
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