Utah’s prison population is rising faster than any state but one, despite many reforms

The state agency that makes sentencing recommendations said Bradley Andrew Eppley should spend about 8 more months in jail and then be freed on probation.

Eppley had lured a man into an attack in Ogden in 2017, stabbed him and cut his throat, according to court documents. He pleaded guilty to two felonies — one for assault and one for attempted robbery.

Second District Judge Ernest Jones didn’t agree with the sentencing recommendation or the arguments from Eppley’s attorney to keep him out of prison. At a hearing in January of this year, Jones sentenced Eppley to prison for up to 15 years, albeit with credit for the almost 16 months he already had spent in jail.

Despite efforts to curb Utah’s prison population, the numbers continue to rise. The state averaged 6,781 prison inmates per day last month, about 300 more than it had a year earlier.

“The prison population’s growing faster than it has in the last decade,” Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Mike Haddon told legislators during a budget hearing Feb. 1.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice found the national prison population fell 1.2% from 2016 to 2017. In Utah, however, the population jumped 4.3% — far greater than the growth in the general population.

Only Idaho, at 5.1%, had a higher rate of inmate increase.

In Utah, the inmate tally is climbing despite a long-term decline in property and violent crimes. In 2015, legislators shortened the penalties for many drug offenses and reduced the amount of time someone with a nonviolent conviction can stay in prison if he or she commits a parole violation.

Since then, the Legislature also reformed the juvenile court and justice system. It’s shown some early successes in reducing the number of kids who go into juvenile courts and detention.

Changes to the adult system, too, have mitigated the inmate growth. Prosecutors filed 14% fewer felony cases the year after the reforms, according to statistics from Utah State Courts, though the filings have increased slightly in each year since.

According to a report released in November from a state agency, the share of nonviolent offenders in Utah prisons declined from 41% in fiscal year 2014 to 33% in the past fiscal year. The amount of time nonviolent offenders stay in prison has dropped, too.

But legislators have made no concerted effort to reduce the number of violent inmates, and that appears to be one reason for the spike. Another reason: how probationers and parolees are sent to prison for violating the terms of their supervision.

That November report from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice found that in the years since the Legislature instituted reforms, parole violators were more likely to return to prison. A separate commission report showed there had been an increase in new convictions for parolees. Those convictions, the report said, were primarily for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug crimes.

Utah Adult Probation and Parole came under scrutiny after three episodes within weeks of one another in early 2016:

• A parolee walked away from a drug treatment center and gunned down Unified Police Department officer Doug Barney.

• A parolee released after a misstep by parole officials was shot and wounded in a confrontation with police.

• An absconder from a halfway house stole a car and rammed a police cruiser before escaping on foot.

Afterward, Probation and Parole implemented a number of reforms to better monitor offenders and hold agents accountable. There might be more changes.

In October, a parolee murdered University of Utah heptathlete and senior communications major Lauren McCluskey. Despite testing positive for marijuana and using a dating app in violation of his terms of parole, the parolee, Melvin Shawn Rowland, received mostly high marks from his parole agent.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Joshua Schoenenberger sits by defense attorney Kim Cordova, as he listens to defense attorney, Ed Brass during a preliminary hearing, Thursday, January 7, 2016.

Kim Cordova, executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said work is underway to determine why so many parolees are returning to prison. But she also praised the justice reform efforts of 2015 by pointing to data showing the inmate population, despite the increase, is still lower than the projections before the laws were amended.

“This has been a significant culture change,” Cordova said.

Steve Burton, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said judges are open to letting offenders receive mental health or substance abuse treatment rather than sentencing them to prison, but Utah still lacks enough treatment services. Without those services, he said, jail or prison becomes the best options for judges.

“Judges have to have a good alternative,” Burton said.

The penitentiary under construction in west Salt Lake City will have 3,600 beds. (An earlier plan for 4,000 beds was recently reduced to save $50 million.) That’s slightly more than the number of inmates being housed at the current Draper prison, which is scheduled to close when the new one opens. Inmates are to move to the new lockup in January 2022.

(Courtesy photo | Utah governor's office) Mike Haddon is the new director of the Utah Department of Corrections.

The Utah Department of Corrections isn’t just busy with inmates. In that budget presentation in February, Haddon, the executive director, explained how his agency also has more parolees and probationers to track and is being asked to conduct more presentence investigations. These reviews of newly convicted defendants offer recommendations to judges about what sentence the offenders should receive.

Presentence reports are not public records. In the case of Eppley, his attorney shared a copy with The Salt Lake Tribune. The investigator recommended Eppley serve 240 days in the Weber County jail, three years of probation, 60 hours of community service, pay $12,577 in restitution and comply with a host of standard conditions.

Weber County already had been paying the bill to detain Eppley, pending the conclusion of his case. Sheriffs across the state have complained for years that when judges sentence defendants to jail for felony convictions, they don’t receive enough of a reimbursement from the state. So by not following the sentencing recommendation and sending Eppley to prison, Jones shifted that cost to state taxpayers, though there’s nothing in the record showing that entered into his decision-making.

(Photo courtesy Utah Department of Corrections.) Bradley Andrew Eppley in 2019.

Jones actually sentenced Eppley to one to 15 years in prison on both counts, though he ordered the terms to run concurrently. Eppley will also have to pay that restitution, plus interest.

Eppley had been charged with first-degree felonies that would have carried mandatory prison sentences, perhaps up to life. Eppley’s attorney, Ryan Bushell, said his client made a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to lesser charges in the hopes of avoiding prison, or at least having a more favorable case to make in front of the parole board.

Bushell said he doesn’t think Utah’s justice reforms are working as intended.

“The older judges," he said, “are just kind of always going to do what they’ve done.”

Eppley is incarcerated at the prison in Gunnison. He has a parole hearing scheduled for August.