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Utah’s criminal justice reform failed to reduce the number of people who reoffend

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A Utah Department of Corrections officer walks through the medium security Wasatch A block at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2014.

When Utah lawmakers passed sweeping criminal justice reform in 2014, they had two main goals: Bring down the number of people sent to prison and help to ensure they don’t reoffend.

Legislative auditors found Utah officials have done just one of those things. The number of people in prison — particularly low-level drug offenders — has gone down.

But recidivism rates among those low-level drug offenders have increased since the Justice Reinvestment Initiative began, according to an audit released Tuesday

Auditors found that in 2013, the recidivism rate for low-level drug offenders was 29%. That number jumped to 37% in 2018.

“Utah has not achieved all the goals of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) because the initiative was not fully implemented,” the legislative audit reads. “Although Utah made changes to its sentencing guidelines, which led to a drop in the state’s prison population, features of JRI designed to provide strong alternatives to incarceration were not implemented.”

When lawmakers lowered the penalties for certain drug crimes, it led to more people receiving community supervision rather than prison time. But auditors say the state didn’t make that supervision count, failing to put in place procedures to “ensure oversight and accountability” and only partially improved drug and mental health treatment.

Because of this, auditors say the number of “chronic drug offenders” in Utah has nearly tripled since the reform efforts were put in place.

“The data suggests Utah’s criminal justice system has not yet developed an effective response for offenders who suffer from serious drug addiction,” the audit reads. “The criminal justice system works well for the majority of drug offenders who are arrested once or twice and never reoffend.”

Auditors found that treatment for those who need it remains inadequate — despite extra funding in recent years. And there wasn’t good enough data to say how many offenders completed their treatment programs, so auditors couldn’t say if it was state money well spent.

Sheriffs expressed concerns to auditors that their jails had become de facto mental health facilities as low-level offenders were locked up because there were no beds available at mental health centers.

The audit’s findings echoed issues that have been brought up with JRI for years. Similar reviews and preliminary data has shown that there was still work to do to expand treatment. Chief Justice Matthew Durrant urged lawmakers in 2017 to put aside more money for treatment programs.

“I encourage you to find a way to complete the entire JRI package and allow this significant reform to cross the finish line,” he said during his State of the Judiciary Address. “The successes that all of us are hoping for depend on this last critical piece of the puzzle being in place.”

These reform efforts were passed because of a bipartisan concern for the number of people incarcerated and the growing cost of the state prison system. It also took place as the state decided to move the prison from Draper to west Salt Lake City and reduce its size.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said during a legislative audit subcommittee hearing Tuesday that it seemed like lawmakers were ambitious in 2015, but that “we got a lot of work left to do.”

“This is a tough climb,” audit supervisor James Buhunin said in response. “We’re just asking [criminal justice agencies] to do a hard thing. I think they’re up to it. It’s just a matter of pulling together and saying, ‘We’re going to do this.' ”

Another goal of the reform effort was to develop a data-driven approach to criminal justice. But auditors said that hasn’t happened.

Judges didn’t receive promised data showing which treatment programs would be most effective, and legislators didn’t receive data that showed the effectiveness of investing in treatment over incarceration.

“As a result,” the audit reads, “Utah still does not know which of the many treatment programs and intervention strategies are the most effective at reducing recidivism.”

Auditors suggested that if the Legislature wants that data, it should create a governing body that develops statewide reporting standards and gathers that data.

The audit found that criminal justice data as a whole in Utah is incomplete because of “silos” across the system. For example, auditors noted that they faced challenges trying to identify recidivism rates because court records had a different client identification number than the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Auditors gave a number of suggested fixes in its 182-page report. They suggested creating local criminal justice coordinating councils to improve communication, coordination and better funding at the local level. They also suggested improving data gathering and creating a way to track which treatment options were working for offenders.

Prison officials said in response to the audit that implementing these recommendations were critical. Without it, they worry that Utah will again start experiencing rapid growth within the prison system.

They agreed that agencies needed to work together to collect data to track treatment outcomes and to identify whether offenders ordered to obtained mental health or substance abuse services were actually able to get that help.

Other criminal justice-related agencies — such as the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, the court system, the Board of Pardons and Parole and the Department of Public Safety — also agreed with the auditors' recommendations and said they would work with each other to produce better data and tracking of offenders.

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