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Commentary: Utah’s state criminal justice reforms are helping. Utah’s local federal prosecutors and defenders should join the conversation.

(Jessica Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 19, 2020.

A commentary in the Oct. 16 Salt Lake Tribune by John Huber, the United States Attorney for the District of Utah (“Chronic offenders are slipping through the state system”), using anecdotes to decry Utah’s tremendous efforts to improve criminal justice in this state, does not reflect an accurate picture of Utah’s efforts to protect public safety and ensure the rights of Utahns.

While there is certainly continued work to be done, Huber’s inaccurate attack on the state’s efforts was an unfounded overreach by a federal prosecutor and is unhelpful to the state’s progress in its continued implementation of important criminal justice reforms. Anecdotal criticism, without suggestions for solutions, by an individual outside the state system does little to help improve Utah’s criminal justice system.

In contrast, Utah’s legislative auditor general recently released a data-driven audit that looked into the actual impacts and shortcomings of Utah’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). They used statewide data to disprove anecdotal complaints (e.g., that the prison population was simply shifted to the county jails), illustrate the tremendous improvements made by Utah’s Department of Corrections to focus prison beds on our most serious and violent offenders (a shared goal that protects public safety and saves taxpayer dollars), and propose collaborative recommendations that support the continued implementation of JRI throughout the state.

We recommend anyone interested in this topic to read their summary and recommendations. To be clear, we welcome Huber, or anyone interested in criminal justice reform, to join the conversation in a productive and data-driven collaboration.

Huber has valuable experience as a federal prosecutor. Even though he paints his office as the anecdotal hero to unknown law enforcement and prosecutors who complain to him for help, and blames Utah’s JRI reforms as the source of their complaints, we know he wants to be part of the solution. Had he mounted an attack based on data rather than a collection of anecdotes, he might have been able to propose some collaborative solutions. He did not. Huber’s baseless attack is devoid of data or any proposed solutions.

On the subject of data, Utah is now targeting prison beds for the most serious offenses, with 66% of the prison population in 2019 comprising offenders in prison on violent offenses compared to 59% in 2014 (pre-JRI). Also, while individuals solely incarcerated for drug possession offenses used to comprise 5% of Utah’s prison population in 2014, since JRI these offenders now make up less than 2% of the population.

People in Utah who are involved in the justice system are increasingly participating in substance use treatment (a 32% increase from FY2015 to FY2019). This means our nonviolent offenders are getting treatment and help to become beneficial members of our society, get jobs, pay taxes and not just exist as taxpayer burdens. Recidivism rates for people convicted of drug possession have not changed significantly compared with pre-JRI rates and remain relatively low during the first year after release from prison or the start of probation. There is no objective evidence to suggest that public safety has been impacted negatively by the reduction of the number of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses.

This brings us to crime rates. While we believe any effects (good or bad) of Utah’s JRI reforms on such a broad, multi-faceted indicator would be more indirect, the picture that Huber paints would indicate that crime must be on the rise across the state. In reality, this is not the case. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime in Utah had increased 21% from 2011 to 2015 (JRI began implementation in October 2015); since 2015, this trend has stabilized and even decreased by more than 1% through 2019.

For property crime, Utah’s previous downward progress had plateaued between 2011 and 2015 (and even increased close to 1% in that time), but has now decreased 28% to the lowest rate in decades in 2019. While statewide trends may not be reflected in all localities, it is clear that efforts to portray crime in Utah as out of control due to the JRI reforms is an exaggeration.

Utah has also made other critical criminal justice reforms in the past five years. For example, Utah’s Juvenile Justice Reform has already had a significant impact in reducing the involvement of youth in our courts, and improving services for youth in our state. Additionally, while there was no state funding for indigent defense services prior to 2016, the state now spends over $5 million to ensure defense counsel for people who cannot afford an attorney. This focus on improving indigent defense is leading to improved accountability, and increasing the efficacy and fairness of our criminal justice system while reducing costs.

Huber talks about none of this. While we are accustomed to the easy and overused tool of using anecdotes to oppose criminal justice reforms, that approach is wrong. Huber’s views do not reflect or represent an accurate picture of Utah’s efforts. On the other hand, we choose to focus on solutions and invite Huber to join us at the State level to collaborate on actual solutions and continued reforms to help the statewide effort progress. We represent diverse populations and welcome his voice at the table.

Kim Cordova is executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. Joanna Landau is director of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission. Monica Diaz is director of the Utah Sentencing Commission. Ben Peterson is director of research at the Utah Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice.

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