A commentary published last week in The Salt Lake Tribune advocated for Utah’s return to the ill-advised “war on drugs” approach to low-level crime which wasted a fortune in incarceration costs and ruined countless lives. The commentary by U.S. Attorney John W. Huber attacked Utah’s innovative Justice Reinvestment Initiative and made dubious claims supported neither by data nor research.

JRI was passed by the Utah Legislature in 2014 with a phased implementation beginning in 2015 and 2016. The goal of JRI is to keep low-level offenders from clogging up our jails and prisons; get them into behavioral treatment for mental illness and/or addiction disorders; provide enhanced supervision to ensure compliance to treatment regimens and to keep Utah communities safe. The net effect moves limited public funds from the back-end approach of incarceration to the front-end approach of treatment.

Research supports justice reform. The Vera Institute of Justice as well as the Pew Charitable Trust have both reported that states that have adopted more thoughtful criminal justice policies have reduced their incarceration rates and their crime rates.

The Pew Charitable Trust also evaluated Utah’s planned JRI approach and found “the state’s criminal-justice reform law successfully kept people out of expensive prison cells who don’t represent a threat to public safety.” Reforms also reduces the number of individuals tagged with felony convictions that create a significant barrier to future employment opportunities, housing and self-sufficiency.

Since its phased implementation beginning in 2015, several significant challenges have faced the full implementation of the JRI. With its passage came revised sentencing criteria that allowed prosecutors and judges to divert drug offenders into community-based residential programs.

While the Legislature did provide funding, it was nowhere near the amount necessary to build up the treatment capacity necessary to serve those who were now being diverted from incarceration. Additionally, the implementation coincided with the opioid crisis which increased the number of persons needing addiction treatment alternatives in an already stressed treatment capacity system.

Consequently, low-level drug offenders who were then being released under new sentencing criteria did not have treatment beds available in which to be placed, and were more likely to, once again, be arrested, jailed, and sent through the court system.

The major challenge facing the implementation of the JRI was one of adequate funding. Finally, in 2017, the Legislature passed the Targeted Adult Medicaid (TAM) program sponsored by Rep. James Dunnigan. The legislation included a federal waiver request to allow for the expansion of residential treatment capacity within existing treatment centers statewide. With the federal government’s approval of TAM and the waiver request to increase capacity, Medicaid funds could now be used to increase treatment capacity to the level necessary to fully implement the goals of JRI. This legislation was a major game changer.

In 2017, there were 170 residential addiction treatment beds within Salt Lake County. At the beginning of 2019, there were 550. And now with the full Medicaid expansion in Utah, we are very close to eliminating the treatment capacity gap altogether.

So, is JRI working? We believe it will now, so Iet us take a deep breath and allow JRI do what it was designed to do.

Finally, we must address the question of behavioral health disorders (mental illnesses and addictions) and how they should be dealt with in Utah and within the United States. Behavioral health disorders are health problems, not criminal justice problems. In the past, due to a lack of affordable treatment for most Utahns dealing with behavioral health problems, it has fallen on our courts and law enforcement systems to deal with those behavioral health disorders. This is a waste of precious resources.

It is time to integrate behavioral health treatment into our primary health care system. This will allow earlier preventive care, intervention and early treatment to take place just as it does with any other disease — it is time to treat behavioral health disease like any other disease and not as a crime.

In the long run, earlier access to health care is the right thing to do and it saves lives, families and the Utah taxpayer.

Jim Bradley

Jim Bradley is an at-large member of the Salt Lake County Council.

Patrick J. Fleming

Patrick Fleming is chair of the Utah State Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council.