Being sent to prison can ruin someone’s life. Which is sort of the point. Knowing that is supposed to discourage people from committing crimes.
But sending someone to prison doesn’t necessarily do a lot to benefit the state that sent them. It costs the taxpayers a lot of money. It breaks up families, harming people — mostly children — who broke no law. It interrupts the educational and/or career path of people who, when they are released from custody, won’t be able to support themselves and their families as well as they otherwise would have.
So it is good news that Gov. Gary Herbert and top legislative, judicial and law enforcement officials announced Tuesday that an ongoing project looking into the state’s prison system will be asked to report by November — in plenty of time for the next session of the Legislature — on ideas that could help the state significantly reduce the number of Utahns who go to prison. And, more significantly, the number of Utahns who go back to prison.
It was not such good news that Ron Gordon, director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said the proposed reforms would be "fine-tuning" of the existing system.
Now, with the state’s prison population soaring and plans for a new multi-billion state prison in the works, would be a good time to come up with some really bold ideas for both reducing the number of non-violent offenders who go to prison in the first place and the number of parolees who are sent back to the slammer, many on technical violations that endangered no one.
The work is being done by the CCJJ with help from the experts at the Pew Charitable Trusts. They are looking at successful reform packages in other states and are to propose data-driven ideas for curbing the growth in our state’s prison population.
Unless something big changes, inmate population is expected to shoot up by some 2,700 inmates over the next 20 years. Which is one reason why the state is also looking to spend billions on a new prison.
Those costs could go way down, and the quality of life in Utah vastly improved for many, if reforms included easing off on punishment associated with minor drug offenses, including almost everything to do with marijuana, and reserving expensive lock-up space for the truly violent among us.
Lawmakers, in order to put these suggestions into effect, may have to be ready to stand up to political charges of being "soft on crime." But a lack of reform would be hard on both low-level offenders and the taxpayers’ pockets.
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