ST. GEORGE — Over the past two years, Utah has lowered its prison population by 11 percent while strengthening community supervision and increasing treatment resources in the state, according to a new report by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
Utah’s prison population decreased from 7,026 to 6,276, according to the 2017 report released Friday, suggesting Utah’s criminal justice reforms are on the right track.
The decrease is a result of Utah’s efforts to reserve its scarce and expensive prison space for serious and violent offenders, while offering lower-level offenders better opportunities to succeed in their communities by expanding treatment programs, according to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative set into motion by Gov. Gary Herbert in January 2014.
“I have asked for a full review of our current system to develop a plan to reduce recidivism, maximize offenders success in becoming law-abiding citizens, and provide judges with the tools they need to accomplish these goals,” Herbert said in 2014. “The prison gates through which people re-enter society must be a permanent exit, and not just a revolving door.”
Offenders on probation and parole supervision were failing at higher rates, accounting for 46 percent of Utah’s prison population in 2014. It was determined that without action or any reforms, the State would need to house an additional 2,700 inmates – a 37 percent growth – in prison by the year 2034.
Today, the prison population is 18 percent lower than was projected without reforms, and violent offenders make up 68 percent of the population – up from 60 percent in 2015 – compared to 32 percent nonviolent offenders – a relative decrease of 20 percent in nonviolent since reforms were passed.
“This data shows we’re continuing to head in the right direction for Utah’s criminal justice reforms,” said Doreen Weyland, who helped write the report. “This progress is encouraging and shows that Utah is improving public safety through better use of prison space for more serious and violent offenders, holding offenders accountable through improved community supervision, and providing critical treatment by investing in community-based programs at historically high levels.”
Utah has seen a 21 percent increase in criminal justice-involved clients served in mental health treatment, as well as increases in the number of residential treatment beds and admissions to substance use treatment, according to the report.
With over 95 percent of offenders returning to our communities after serving time in prison or jail, Justice Reinvestment Initiative focuses on changing criminal behavior and improving public safety.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative – a comprehensive set of recommendations projected to decrease prison growth by 2,551 inmates over the next 20 years and avert $542 million in corrections spending – was developed by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice in 2014.
Many of these recommendations were incorporated into House Bill 348, which passed in both the House and Senate with an overwhelming majority vote. In March 2015, Herbert signed these reforms into law.
While a small number of provisions went into effect immediately in May 2015, the bulk of the changes became effective on Oct. 1, 2015.
The 2nd Annual JRI Report examines criminal justice data from the first 21 months of implementing reform policies. Because some policies are multifaceted and complex, many of the policies are still in need of sufficient time before the impact on Utah’s criminal justice system can be realized, the report notes.
Key findings at year two of the passage of criminal justice reform include the following:
- a continuing decrease in the percent of drug possession only offenses filed as felony crimes.
- an increase in substance use treatment in residential settings, with the overall number of justice involved clients served for substance use remaining relatively unchanged.
- a significant increase in the number of justice involved clients served for mental health treatment.
- a departure in sentencing guidelines and actual sentencing decisions, with decisions weighing more heavily in favor of prison sentences than guideline recommendations.
- a prison population that now meets its H.B. 348 projections, while decreasing the number of drug possession and other nonviolent offenders and focusing resources on more serious and violent offenders.
- an increase in the number of prison admissions from supervision, particularly parole.
- a decrease in the length of stay in prison for nonviolent offenses and revocations.
- a similar growth rate in the overall supervision population pre- and post-reform, with changes occurring in its composition.
- no evidence of adverse effects on general public safety trends since the reforms have been implemented.
Several issue boxes throughout the report also identify other topics and challenges such as expanding treatment capacity and availability across the state, the potential effect of low-level drug crime on future felony cases, disproportionate prison sentences for minority offenders and offender recidivism and other outcomes.
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