Commentary: You could go to jail for what?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Sen. Daniel Thatcher speaks during a news conference about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act being signed into law. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018.

Earlier this year, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke discovered a small motherless baby raccoon had found its way onto his porch. He tried to help the little creature by feeding him, providing him with temporary shelter, and even giving him a name: Wilson. When neither the vet nor wildlife rescue would take the raccoon due to state laws, Gehrke learned that by helping Wilson, he was breaking the law.

Thankfully, Gehrke won’t be sent to jail. Sen. Dan Thatcher sponsored SB180 earlier this year to decriminalize the act which brings the current penalty to an infraction. But before the bill became law in March, keeping a raccoon was a class B misdemeanor — a crime punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

This is a prime example of what was once an extreme penalty for a low-level crime. Thatcher’s bill took care of this particular law, but there are plenty more minor crimes hidden within the pages of Utah code that carry heavy penalties. For example, failing to report the sale of a vehicle, promoting or engaging in an ultimate fighting match or failing to return library material are all class A misdemeanors, an offense which carries penalties of up to a year in jail and $2,500 in fines.

Maybe these things should remain illegal — but should their penalties be so harsh?

Fair punishments are just one piece of the criminal justice puzzle that legislators have attempted to better put together for many years. To continue improving, they need to comprehensively examine current criminal penalties to ensure that they are fair and just. In this upcoming legislative session, they will be doing just that.

In October of this year, the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force recommended to the Legislature a bill that would repeal a variety of outdated laws. The bill would, if adopted, decriminalize adultery and sodomy, which are currently class B misdemeanors. Despite being on the books, few have ever been prosecuted for these crimes. By enacting these reforms, Utah will better be complying with a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed as unconstitutional any state laws restricting the bedroom behavior between consenting adults.

Aside from cleaning up antiquated laws, the task force bill would also provide prostitutes with protection from prosecution if they come forward to report other crimes. This amendment was supported by the Magdalene Collective, a group that advocates for sex workers’ rights.

Among other penalty modifications for various laws including theft and violation of the minimum wage act, the bill also lowers the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor for those who obstruct an official search or investigation.

Keeping penalties high for minor offenses does little good for the individual offender or for taxpayers. Not only do these laws negatively affect the offender, but all Utahns who are required to foot the bill for court services and jail stays — no matter how lengthy they may be.

Laws remain enforceable and unchanged until someone decides to bring it up to the Legislature for reconsideration. Because elected officials are tasked with considering hundreds of new bill proposals every session, it’s difficult to go back and evaluate the effect of each and every law that has been passed over the years. That’s why efforts like the task force are so critical, to take time and analyze past laws to consider future reforms.

In the era of overcriminalization, Utah is certainly familiar with the impacts of overcrowding jails. Re-evaluating criminal laws that may have been written decades ago is something that the Utah Legislature needs to do more often for the sake of ensuring fair punishment while providing taxpayer relief. Passage of the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force bill is a good place to start.

Molly Davis | Libertas Institute

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.