Prison gates: Permanent exits or revolving doors? Officials seek roadmap to reform

 SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary R. Herbert, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant and Attorney General Sean Reyes have charged the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice with developing a comprehensive set of data-driven recommendations to increase public safety, while limiting expected growth of the state’s prison budget. The commission will submit recommendations to the governor and Legislature in November for consideration in the 2015 legislative session.

“We’re calling on the foremost experts on public safety to create a new roadmap for our criminal justice system,” Herbert said, according to a statement released by his office Tuesday.  “The prison gates must be a permanent exit from the system, not just a revolving door. Just like every other area of government, we need to ensure we are getting the best possible results for each taxpayer dollar.”

Historically, Utah has maintained a modest incarceration rate while the crime rate has steadily declined. However, in the last decade, the state’s prison population has grown 22 percent. The state projects it will grow by another 37 percent over the next two decades, requiring 2,700 new prison beds. The state’s recidivism rate, measured by the share of offenders returning to prison within three years of being released, is 46 percent.

“The Legislature must not simply consider when and where and how big to build our new state prison, but also what kind of a criminal justice system will be best for Utah in the years to come,” Niederhauser said. “It is time to reassess our sentencing and corrections policies to ensure offenders not only pay their debt to society, but become productive, strong law-abiding citizens upon their release.”

The state will receive technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership between Pew and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Over the past several years, more than half of the states — including Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas — have enacted justice reinvestment strategies to control their corrections spending and protect public safety. They do so by focusing their prison space on serious, chronic, and violent offenders and investing savings from averted prison growth into probation, parole, and other mandatory supervision practices that save taxpayer dollars and cut crime.

Pew’s public safety performance project has worked with states across the country as they have developed fiscally sound data-driven legislation that will protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control costs.

States today spend more than $50 billion per year on corrections, yet recidivism rates remain stubbornly high. More than 4-in-10 offenders nationwide return to state prison within three years of their release, according to a press release issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts in April 2011.

“Utah should be proud of our achievements in corrections and public safety,” Lockhart said. “But we are not a state that settles for ‘good enough.’ Eventually, offenders serve their time and get released. So the pressing issue is how to make it less likely that they will commit new offenses.”

More knowledge regarding recidivism is present now than in the past 40 years, Durrant said.

“Programs like drug and mental health courts, for example, have transformed the way we hold nonviolent offenders accountable and reduce repeat crime,” he said. “We must examine these and other evidence-based programs and practices as we build a more effective and efficient sentencing and corrections system in the state.”

The program effort will identify ways Utah can shift its efforts to prevent crime and recidivism, Reyes said.

“We need to ensure there is enough prison space for violent and career criminals while employing new and traditional tools of the justice system to restore lower-level offenders’ chances of reentering society as productive members, thereby shifting our incarceration focus to more effective, less expensive alternatives,” he said.

In January, Herbert said in his State of the State Address that a full review of Utah’s criminal justice system will aim toward reform.

Preliminary data findings show

  • Utah’s prison population increased 22 percent over the last 10 years and is projected to grow 37 percent over the next two decades
  • Prisoners are spending an average 18 percent longer in prison than they did 10 years ago
  •  46 percent of all offenders leaving prison return within three years.
  •  Probation and parole violators make up two-thirds of admissions to prison
  •  62 percent of people sentenced to prison for a new crime were convicted of a nonviolent offense

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  • Bob August 8, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Inmates exit the gates with very little support unless there is some family support. Get them prepared to leave and continue support services when they are out. It is cheaper to do this than house them year in and year out.

  • Barry Short August 8, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    From a longer perspective, in the 34 years since 1980, the population of Utah has not quite doubled, while the prison population has increased to seven times what it was. That means the average Utah taxpayer is paying nearly four times as much of their income to maintain the prison system.

    The main cause is that sentences are longer – we’re actually sending fewer new people to prison per year due to a falling crime rate, and we’d send even fewer with a change in our approach to substance abuse. We have the technology today to release yet monitor those who have committed non-violent crimes, allowing them to continue or find employment and earn a living (and perhaps enough to pay restitution to their victims as well) instead of keeping them incarcerated where all their living costs are entirely paid by taxpayers. Let’s get ourselves focused on rehabilitation, not punishment.

  • Brian August 8, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    There are two types of people going to prison: people who made a mistake but are otherwise good, and people that are really bad dudes (some are downright evil). And of course there is every shade of gray in between. The trick is keeping the evil suckers out of society, while helping the people that just made a mistake come out as better people that have a better than 54% chance of staying productively in society. As a father and tax payer, I’ll gladly pay for both sides of that coin. Unfortunately, way too often the evil suckers get arrested over and over and over until they finally kill someone, and the good person that messed up gets the book thrown at them and their life is ruined.

  • My Evil Twin August 8, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Not to worry anybody. This is just more political posturing by a bunch of politicians, trying to fool people into thinking they are doing something, and that they actually give a darn about anyone other than themselves.

  • Mark Vinclio August 10, 2014 at 9:54 am

    they are a revolving door people are not afraid to commit crime. Judge’s and attorney’s have ruined the system

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