With a recidivism rate above the national average and a prison population expected to grow by some 2,700 inmates during the next two decades, Gov. Gary Herbert and other state leaders are in the midst of a ground-up review of Utah’s corrections policy.
"We’re calling on the foremost experts on public safety to create a new road map for our criminal-justice system," Herbert said in a statement. "The prison gates must be a permanent exit from the system, not just a revolving door."
Work on the project began in March, when the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice enlisted the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The latter organization has conducted similar work in two dozen states in the past seven years.
The work entered its second phase Tuesday as Herbert, along with House Speaker Becky Lockhart, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant and Attorney General Sean Reyes asked CCJJ and Pew to begin formulating recommended changes to Utah’s policies for dealing with inmates, probationers and parolees.
A report from the group is expected in November.
"It will be fine-tuning. I’m not anticipating any dramatic overhaul of anything," CCJJ director Ron Gordon said in an interview. "It will take the shape of legislative recommendations for some and some may be able to be implemented without legislation."
The assessment comes as Utah is considering whether to relocate its existing state prison in Draper and, if it is moved, where to build a new one and how big it will need to be to keep pace with the growing population of incarcerated Utahns.
"The Legislature must not simply consider when and where and how big to build our new state prison, but also what kind of a criminal-justice system will be best for Utah in the years to come," said Niederhauser, R-Sandy. "It is time to reassess our sentencing and corrections policies to ensure offenders not only pay their debt to society, but become productive, strong law-abiding citizens upon their release."
Forty-six percent of Utah inmates who leave prison are back behind bars within three years, according to the most recent statistics, a figure that sits just above the national average.
And inmates are staying behind bars 18 percent longer — or about five months — than they were 10 years ago.
How the state deals with those on probation and parole will be a major part of the focus of the work, Gordon said. Currently, about two-thirds of those added to the prison population are a result of having their probation or parole status revoked, many for technical violations.
"So that just tells us that’s an area we can improve, and by improve I mean reducing recidivism and increasing public safety," said Gordon, who has held a dozen forums around the state on the corrections system.
"That might result in new supervision techniques and practices. That might result in recommendations regarding [substance abuse and mental health] treatment services for those who are on probation and parole," Gordon said. "It could involve employment placement. It could involve education, skill-building, some of those things that might take place, some inside the prison and some outside the prison."
Spending on incarcerating inmates has grown during the past decade as the population has grown, but the budget for Adult Probation & Parole has not kept pace.
The analysis will also look at Utah’s sentencing policies and inmate-release policies.
According to figures presented to the Utah Sentencing Commission in April, Utah has added 80 felony crimes to the books in the past five years and removed just three.
When Pew studied South Dakota’s prison system, it recommended devoting prison space to violent, career criminals and reducing sentences for nonviolent offenses. It also suggested investing some of the money saved by reducing prison growth into strategies to reduce recidivism — such as substance abuse and mental-health interventions and expanded use of drug courts.
"Programs like drug and mental health courts, for example, have transformed the way we hold nonviolent offenders accountable and reduce repeat crime," Durrant said. "We must examine these and other evidence-based programs and practices as we build a more effective and efficient sentencing and corrections system in the state."
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