The Utah prison relocation is a mess, thanks in no small part to the corrupt and inept leadership of the Utah Legislature.
Legislators wanted the Draper prison property for commercial and residential real estate development. They forced the change down our throats, ignoring citizen preferences, quality of life issues and the economic consequences to Utah taxpayers.
Last week, the executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections spoke to a legislative subcommittee telling them that inmate growth over the past 18 months has reached levels that are “simply not sustainable.” Additionally, he said that Utah’s prison population growth rate is among the highest in the nation and that recent criminal justice reform efforts aimed at diverting adult and juvenile offenders to alternative programs have failed.
So where exactly does that leave us?
First, the new prison, originally planned to open with 4,000 beds, has been reduced to 3,600. The reason, a serious and perhaps intentional underestimate of the construction costs, originally calculated at a whooping $650 million. By trimming 400 beds from the project, officials hope to reduce constructions costs by $130 million.
Second, the relocation of the prison population has been postponed until early 2022. Suffice to say, delays in construction typically result in higher costs. When our new prison does open, it will be way over budget and probably operating at full capacity. Then what?
We do have options, some better than others. The state could reopen part of the old Draper prison (the Legislature won’t like this one), send additional inmates to the Gunnison prison, place more state inmates in county jails, although that alternative has caused problems in the past, or, bite the financial bullet and reinstate the previously cut 400 beds.
What’s clear is that we can’t continue doing what we’ve been doing. We have to find ways to slow prison growth.
Here are a couple of ideas that deserve consideration, and to my knowledge, haven’t been tried.
First, while judges sentence offenders to prison, they typically do not determine how long each inmate serves. That responsibility falls to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. I know because I served on that board. Parole board members use sentencing guidelines to determine the actual length of time served. These guidelines are advisory only. They can be changed in such a way that shortens the length of time served for each inmate.
Second, the Utah Criminal Code is long past due for an overhaul. Surely, we can identify some second-degree felony offenses that could be reduced to a less serious third-degree felony. Surely, we can identify some third-degree felony offenses that could be reduced to Class A misdemeanors.
And finally, perhaps it’s time to take a serious look at either eliminating or reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences that tie the hands of both judges and the state parole board and clearly contribute to prison crowding. I would submit these changes could be made without jeopardizing public safety.
This isn’t rocket science, folks, but it does require leadership and political will, something lacking among Utah political leaders.
Michael Norman is a retired professor of criminal justice at Weber State University, having served on the Utah Board of Pardons & Parole. He currently writes murder mysteries set in Utah, and his latest book is “Slow Burn.”