Southern Utah prosecutors, police and parents weigh in on problematic criminal justice reforms

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CEDAR CITY — Major justice reform efforts in Utah began more than six years ago in an attempt to address the state’s growing prison population by providing treatment and successful reentry programs for nonviolent offenders. The efficacy of those reforms was discussed in a recent meeting in Cedar City, during which many attendees expressed concerns about rising recidivism rates and a lack of supervision and funding for the programs.

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The meeting was led by Tom Ross, who was appointed to oversee the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice in January. Ross, a 34-year veteran of law enforcement, 14 of which were spent serving as the Bountiful police chief, has played an integral role in shaping new state laws targeting mental health treatment as well as policies addressing drug addiction and other justice-related issues across the state.

A panel comprised of representatives from a number of agencies observed the meeting, including the Utah Department of Corrections, Board of Pardons and Parole, Adult Probation and Parole, as well as the courts, human services, substance abuse prevention and indigent defense.

The meeting was also attended by an audience consisting of concerned citizens, parolees, parents of inmates, prosecutors, police chiefs, officers and defense attorneys.

The commission is seeking feedback from the various sectors on what is working and where the reforms are lacking. Ross said the commission was aware there are gaps in terms of the expectations behind the initiatives and what has actually materialized over the last six years.

The series of measures began in 2015 as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives designed to slow the growing costs of the state correctional system and to reduce recidivism rates by diverting nonviolent prisoners into community programs, including substance abuse and mental health treatment, court support services and community supervision. There were also a series of juvenile justice reforms that are being evaluated as well.

The meeting was held in the wake of a year-long audit conducted by the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General, the findings of which revealed mixed success. While the initiatives have reduced the prison population as intended, the changes have failed to reduce recidivism rates across the board, particularly with drug offenses.

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Moreover, the measures were not fully implemented and in some cases not implemented at all. Ross said it’s those deficiencies that have created the gaps and it is the public that is left paying the price for the shortcomings.

“There is a lot of frustration out there,” he said, referring to feedback received from the general public.

Explaining that the ideologies behind the reforms are positive, Ross said the measures did in fact free up 1,200 prison beds that are now available for violent offenders as intended. However, as it stands now, the programs intended to replace incarceration have not been implemented as they should have been, he said, which has resulted in offenders being released into the community without any plan in place.

“Without these programs,” Ross said, “these offenders are just out.”

Furthermore, instead of reducing recidivism as projected, the lack of supervision and other programs that were supposed to be implemented has led to those numbers going in the wrong direction as the rate of recidivism has steadily climbed since 2015.

A woman who was paroled after spending more than 13 years in the Utah State Prison was the first from the audience to speak, and she explained what life was like following her release several years ago. She said she was homeless for the first two years of her post-prison life and she had no access to mental health or substance abuse services. The lack of assistance created many roadblocks to success, she said, and made it even more difficult to adjust to life after spending so much time behind bars.

The parents of a man who was sentenced to serve 15 years to life on sex offenses addressed the panel, explaining that their son has served several years of his sentence but has yet to go through any sex offender treatment. They said the treatment their son needs may not even happen until after he is paroled.

One prosecutor from Utah County told the panel that adequate funding for substance abuse treatment was “sorely lacking,” saying that treatment can increase their chances to live a drug-free life and become a contributing member of society.

However, many can’t afford treatment on their own, and without it, he said, they are likely to be focused solely on abstaining from using drugs for a specific amount of time, such as while they are on probation or some other type of supervision. But once they cross that threshold, he said, they are more likely to return to using drugs.

Mike Deal from Southwest Behavioral Health said a shift took place across the country in the 1980s with a push to close down many state mental hospitals and build smaller prisons. Following the changes, the individuals that were receiving inpatient mental health services were released back into communities all across the country without having the resources or assistance adequate enough to help them.

The decline in treatment programs and mental health services led to a rise in crime, and it was left up to corrections to address the rising inmate populations, a methodology that doesn’t work, he said. Instead, the programs and treatment as outlined in the JRI initiatives need to be adequately funded, which in turn can also help to lower recidivism rates.

“Incarcerate less and treat more, Deal said.

Shain Manuele, a defense attorney who also serves as a public defender, said he is seeing more clients with mental health issues, as well as those affected by substance abuse. He also said the majority of these clients have suffered from some type of abuse or trauma, which can leave them vulnerable to substance abuse and other criminality.

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Manuele said that running these individuals through the court system without providing the tools or treatment needed does them a disservice and ignores the underlying issues that placed them in the criminal justice system to begin with. In fact, he said, many of his clients need assistance that goes beyond what he can provide as their attorney and their family members are paying the price as well.

Reinvesting in education and treatment, on the other hand, can give them coping skills and help them manage their life without the use of drugs. It’s like putting the money in front of the problem, he said, instead of putting it in the back end — the money spent to prevent criminality is of far more value than what is spent after the damage has already been done.

Washington County Prosecutor Eric Clarke addressed the panel by going over the positive aspects of JRI, including the state-funded receiving center that provides crisis mental health and substance abuse intervention as well as the added funds for Adult Probation and Parole.

“Those are all great,” Clarke said.

On the other hand, he said, the changes have also created a system that is watered down, one in which their hands are tied when it comes to not only charging a defendant, but also in sentencing recommendations.

He mentioned a case involving a fentanyl dealer, who, after pleading guilty, the judge ordered a presentence report prior to sentencing. When the report came back, Clarke said it provided a recommended sentence of probation, which he described as shocking, considering not only the seriousness of the charges, but also the type of drug involved — one that had caused so many deaths across the state.

Clarke explained that it requires great effort to make the difficult changes necessary when addressing substance abuse, and part of the process involves accountability and consequences. To that end, he said supervision is key in keeping an individual accountable for the decisions they make. The problem, he said, is that funding for that supervision is sorely lacking, particularly for the high-risk probationers.

When Iron County Attorney Chad Dotson addressed the panel, he cited a case in which a suspect was sentenced to serve 60 days in jail for admittedly stealing a trailer full of tools and equipment valued at well over $30,000 from an Iron County resident. He described the difficulty when he has to look a victim in the eye and explain the sentence the defendant will likely receive, particularly when the punishment falls short when compared to the crime.

Referring to the victim in the case, Dotson said, “He lost his entire livelihood, and that’s a gut-punch for that victim as well.”

Further, the offender has yet to pay anything on the restitution order, which is not a requirement to remain in good standing with probation.

Cedar City Police Chief Darin Adams, who said he was including comments from Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter who could not attend, said all of the measures as set forth in the JRI initiatives need to be implemented to make sure there is accountability, including community supervision and other funding that is necessary to make the amendments work.

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As it is now, he said, the state has not provided the necessary funding for programs designed to reduce recidivism as expected by JRI, and as a result, he said his department and police agencies across the state are seeing an epidemic of mental health issues and drug addiction that are leading to greater criminal activity, as well as an increase in violent incidents.

“We’re not seeing reform — only recidivism,” Adams said.

The meeting is one of seven townhall-style forums taking place across the state, each of which is recorded. Those recordings will be used to identify the areas where the initiatives are working, as well as where they have fallen short, by using the information obtained from those who are seeing how the measures have impacted the justice system in the real world. Information gleaned will be used to develop programs, provide funding, pass legislation or find other solutions to address those issues.

While issues abound for adult offenders being released from incarceration, juvenile justice reforms, on the other hand, have been successful, according to the meeting’s discussion. A more thorough look into those changes will be outlined in an upcoming report.

This report is part of an ongoing series by St. George News providing an in-depth look into the sweeping changes that have impacted every aspect of the criminal justice system in Utah, from the arresting officers to the Board of Pardons and Parole. See the previous entry below.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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