A bill that would alter the state’s current halfway house arrangement by dispersing the buildings that house parolees throughout Utah is on its way to an important vote after a Senate committee showed it supports what would be a corrections policy shift for the state’s inmates.

The bill would set requirements for counties throughout Utah to host halfway houses, where parolees receive treatment in the effort to prepare them to return to life outside the corrections system. Currently, only Salt Lake and Weber counties have the institutions.

HB126 overcame opposition from top officials at the Utah Department of Corrections and civil rights advocates. While prison officials support the idea of creating smaller facilities that are closer to an inmate’s home, prisoner advocates still fear rural counties will struggle to recruit qualified employees to work with parolees.

But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Peterson, Ogden, amended the bill to include $8.6 million annually from the state’s budget to staff and operate the new and retrofitted buildings, which would cost the state $27 million next year to set up.

Still, Peterson would need to persuade colleagues to prioritize the bill over a rush of other requests for money.

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Spread throughout the state halfway houses for prison parolees transitioning back into society. The change from such facilities in Salt Lake and Weber counties only would cost an estimated $27 million, plus $8.6 million annually. - Read full text

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Filed Law Introduced in House House Committee House passage Senate Committee Senate passage Governor's OK

The bill has dozens of co-sponsors in the House, which passed it 64-5 this month. HB126 will now get in line with other requests for a portion of the state’s budget. Sen. Jerry Stevens, Senate chairman of the Legislature’s main budget committee, said Friday that funding requests outnumber available money by about two-to-one.

“I’m hoping for the best but expecting the worst,” Peterson said.

Jan. 31: House moves forward with bill that would scatter halfway houses across Utah, despite opposition from Corrections leaders

The opposition of top brass at the Department of Corrections wasn’t enough to stop lawmakers on a House committee from advancing a bill that would scatter halfway houses across Utah.

The bill would set a cap on the number of people in halfway houses across Utah in an attempt to shift the burden of housing parolees from Salt Lake and Weber counties throughout the rest of the state.

The state has five low-security centers that house people who are on parole or probation. They would be split, largely along the Wasatch Front, based on a county’s population. HB126 would lead to new halfway houses in Davis, Utah, Washington and Cache counties, as well as in rural zones throughout the state.

Corrections officials and some lawmakers on a committee hoped to halt the bill and study the issue after the current legislative session ends and before the next begins in January 2019. Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, the bill’s author, said the state has known long enough that Salt Lake and Weber counties shouldn’t be the only with the so-called community correctional centers.

“We’ve been painted a picture that if this bill were to move forward, it would be the end of treatment as we know it,” Peterson said. “The people that make that decision are in the corrections department. They’re the ones that design the facilities, that build them. We simply write the checks and provide the policy directive for them.”

There’s a hefty price tag for HB126, which would lead to more low-security halfway houses across the state that seek to help inmates transition back into lives outside the prison system. The state would pay $6.2 million to buy and retrofit buildings to create the new centers next year and $8.8 million annually to operate and staff them.

“It does not tie their hands. It does not restrict them from continuing to do the great job they’re doing when they’re doing it,” Peterson said. “It simply says that we are going to have smaller community facilities.”

The Department of Corrections and some prisoner advocates opposed HB126, saying Utah’s rural counties don’t have enough mental health and addiction treatment capacity to help prisoners reenter society.

“It makes absolutely no sense to simply move people ... to other locations around the state based solely on population numbers,” Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook said.

The agency already lacks staffing for mental-health professionals, said Andrew Riggle, public policy advocate with the Disability Law Center, though it’s been improving. He said scattering inmates throughout Utah would send people with high needs into areas that may not have jobs or treatment options.

“If we add additional folks with these needs, where are the resources and staff going to come from?” he asked.

Cook declined to comment after the hearing, saying he was too heated in the minutes after the committee passed the bill 5-4 over his and other officials’ objections. The bill now goes to the full House.

The state’s policy on halfway housing came up last session, when lawmakers passed a bill (HB178) that prevented cities from passing so-called "good landlord” laws that gave incentives to property owners refusing to rent to convicted felons and penalizing those who did.

Ogden officials at the time said the Northern Utah Community Correction Center led to a higher concentration of ex-cons renting in the same area in the city. The Legislature exempted West Valley City and Ogden from that bill, allowing landlords in those cities — which host halfway houses — to consider criminal history in choosing renters.

“It’s bothersome that we push the red button and say it’s going to be the zombie apocalypse if something changes,” Peterson said. “I don’t believe that to be the case. We can do what we want to.”