As we face the economic and social challenges of the pandemic, it behooves us to remember our fellow Utahns who have the least control over their circumstances — the approximately 14,000 people incarcerated in Utah.
This spring, to allow for more adequate physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID–19, the Salt Lake County jail released many low-risk, nonviolent inmates who pose no threat to public safety.
The laudable move to reduce the jail’s population protects the health of all Utahns. When fewer people are incarcerated, there’s a lower chance that a jail-related COVID–19 outbreak will infect the public safety employees who work in our jails and spread to the surrounding community. On a wider scale, policies that keep nonviolent people out of carceral institutions will lead to public health, safety and economic benefits for all of us.
Spending even a short time in prison decreases a person’s lifetime earnings by about half. The effect is especially pronounced for Black and Latino formerly incarcerated people, who experience more economic stagnation after leaving prison than their white peers. During incarceration, people often lose their homes, jobs and health insurance. After release, many face barriers to housing and employment. These instabilities are tied to recidivism, making our communities less safe.
A leading cause of mass incarceration is an over-reliance on the monetary bail system. Individuals charged with but not yet found guilty of a crime often end up stuck in jail if they cannot post monetary bail, regardless of their public safety risk.
The Utah Legislature voted this year to improve the system by prioritizing public safety considerations in pretrial release decisions. The bill — sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Pitcher — is informed by lawsuits around the country challenging the constitutionality of monetary bail on equal protection and due process grounds.
Under the new law, judges use their discretion to set the least restrictive, reasonably available pretrial conditions necessary to ensure the accused returns to court and secure the safety of victims, witnesses and the public. Because of the bipartisan move, Utah will no longer unnecessarily detain nonviolent offenders simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.
The cost of incarceration to the state itself is high. Utah taxpayers spend over $22,000 per inmate every year. It’s especially expensive to use penal institutions to address problems that public health and health care could more effectively solve. When our carceral systems lack adequate resources to support inmates with mental illness or addiction, the consequences are devastating: In the two weeks after their release, former prisoners are 129 times more likely to die of a drug overdose than the general population.
People with stigmatized health statuses — like substance use or mental illness — are convicted at disproportionately high rates. The same is true for people with minoritized identities, including Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ Utahns.
In 2021, the Legislature will consider a bill allowing the Utah Sentencing Commission to evaluate the impact of proposed criminal justice legislation on marginalized groups. The bill I have sponsored will ensure that legislators and the public are aware of unintended inequitable impacts of proposed changes to the criminal code before they become law.
There are more programs and resources with bipartisan backing than we can discuss here to replace the default incarceration of offenders and defendants who have not committed a violent crime. We encourage a continuing public conversation on community-based alternatives to incarcerating nonviolent people.
The aim of the criminal justice system is to promote the safety of our communities, affording everyone a chance to thrive. We must advance policies to prevent unnecessary incarceration of nonviolent offenders, so more Utahns can rebuild trusting relationships with society in the context of their own neighborhoods, families and workplaces.
Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, represents District 24 in the Utah House.