Data shows Utah is ‘headed in the right direction’ with criminal justice reforms, report says

Two years after Utah implemented the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) to reduce recidivism and help offenders become law-abiding members of society, the set of reforms appears in many cases to be working, a recent report says.

The prison population, as well as the number of inmates behind bars for drug-possession and other non-violent crimes, has dropped and resources are focused on more serious and violent offenders, according to the 2017 annual report on the JRI by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ).

The number of offenders who are getting mental health treatment is up. And there is no evidence the reforms have had a direct adverse effect on public safety, the report says.

“The data in the following pages demonstrates, in many cases, that we are headed in the right direction,” the report says.

But the report also identifies a half-dozen issues that need attention. It says continued review and regular analysis is needed to address any unintended consequences and to ensure “decisions are based on data.”

Work on the JRI began in 2014 after Gov. Gary Herbert called for a plan to reduce recidivism, hold offenders accountable and control the growth of the state’s prison population. A review showed the number of inmates had increased by 18 percent between 2004 and 2014 and that a significant number of prison admissions were for non-violent offenses.

Based on the findings, the CCJJ developed recommendations that are projected to decrease prison growth by 2,551 inmates over the next 20 years and avert $542 million in corrections spending. Many of the recommendations were approved by the Utah Legislature in House Bill 348 and most went into affect in October 2015.

The initiative reduced the sentences for certain drug crimes and diverts more offenders to community based treatment so they can stay connected to their families and support networks. The reforms also enhanced substance-abuse and mental health treatment options and provided opportunities for probationers and parolees to shorten their time on supervised release.

The report, which is based on data from the JRI’s first 21 months of operation, says Utah’s average prison population in 2014 was 7,026. The 2017 average to date is 6,276 — 18 percent less than what was projected if there had been no reforms, according to the report.

In fiscal 2015, 60 percent of prisoners were violent offenders, but now make up 68 percent of the inmate population, according to the report. Prisoners convicted of drug possession only are 2 percent of the population now, down from 5 percent.

And more inmates are being released on parole. In fiscal 2017, 2,828 left prison as parolees, a 20 percent increase from 2,353 in fiscal 2016.

Doreen Weyland, the JRI coordinator for the CCJJ, said it will take time to see the full impact of the initiative, but added, “We’re hoping to see a reduction in recidivism and criminal behavior by implementing these reforms.”

Those reductions, in turn, will save money that could be reinvested into treatment and programs, Weyland said.

She added the report is not a “one-and-done” but will be followed up with shorter reports providing further analysis on some issues.

Among those issues are why a higher percentage of offenders who are racial or ethnic minorities are being sent to prison since new sentencing guidelines went into effect (now 43 percent of new commitments versus 34 percent previously); whether screening of county jail inmates is adequately predictive of subsequent behavior; and how to find enough therapists to provide substance abuse and mental health treatment for clients across the state when salaries are higher in the private sector.

Changes in drug crime penalties also will be examined. Some drug possession offenses were lowered to misdemeanors for the first two or three convictions, but then can be enhanced to a felony after that — raising the question of whether there will be a felony “bubble,” or sharp increase in felony possession cases, the report says.

In addition, the CCJJ will be looking at how earned time off for completing prison programs and other factors affect the length of time an inmate is behind bars and why parolees seem to be returning to prison earlier and at a higher rate recently for parole violations or new crimes.

Rollin Cook, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, agrees that the changes have been positive. He said 95 percent of inmates eventually leave prison, and education and rehabilitation programs will help them succeed.

“This is the way we do business now,” Cook said. “The days of locking people away are long gone.”

He also said the department will look at the challenges cited in the report and will make changes if necessary.