Shine Some Light on Utah’s Jails and Justice System

“Sometimes up to 80 percent of the population of county jails are filled with people who have not been convicted of a crime. They have been arrested and are awaiting trial, and yet they are dying.”

Sen. Todd Weiler made this statement during debate of his inmate death transparency bill, SB205, earlier this year. This bill helped address the problem of increased inmate deaths in Utah jails, but other transparency problems still remain. For example, why are these presumably innocent individuals held in jail in the first place?

More than 400 inmates have died in Utah state custody since 2000, making Utah the unfortunate winner of the “highest death rate per capita” award — certainly not something to be proud of. Among those deaths were the high profile cases of Madison Jensen and Heather Miller. Locked up for allegations of drug use, Jensen became severely sick and dehydrated in the Duchesne County Jail. The jail failed to provide her with medical care, which resulted in the 21-year-old’s death on the cold floor of her cramped cell. Miller, a 28-year-old woman detained in Farmington Jail on charges of drug possession, died of a blunt-force trauma spleen injury after she was transported to a nearby hospital.

Both of these deaths gained ample media attention because of the suspicious circumstances and poor jail response to the women’s health conditions. In an attempt to prevent future inmate deaths, Weiler brought forward a bill requiring Utah jails to report information surrounding inmate deaths, treatments for inmates suffering from addiction, and medications dispensed to inmates. The bill passed last March and this information will be reported to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which will then report it to the Legislature with possible recommendations.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the pre-trial process for these individuals. It’s unclear how long the average person is incarcerated before their release or pretrial hearing. It’s not known if plea deals offered to inmates are consistent in relation to crimes committed or inmate demographics, including gender, race, geography, and income level. Are pretrial release decisions closely correlated with pretrial recidivism rates? No one truly knows.

In order to understand how well our system is working in terms of pretrial outcomes, data needs to be collected and evaluated. This is especially important due to the recent statewide implementation of the new pretrial risk assessment test which will help judges make better informed pretrial decisions. This tool will help Utah move away from a strict cash bail schedule which hurts the most vulnerable defendants. But the data about these decisions is not being analyzed—and it should. Only then will policymakers be able to identify trends and enacted evidenced-based reforms.

So far, Florida is leading the way on addressing the problem of data collection in the justice system by passing the nation’s first statewide electronic data law. This bill garnered bipartisan support from across the nation including strong backing from some conservative organizations. Upon implementation, it will facilitate the collection of information—including many pretrial indicators such as inmate admission based on offense type and recidivism rates. These will be used to help courts make well informed, data-driven decisions about how to respond to individuals with bail rates and release terms based on the risk of re-offense and category of alleged crime.

On the county level, the workings of the criminal justice system remain widely unknown around the United States, including here in Utah. Other states are beginning to take strides towards transparency and knowledge of their criminal justice system so that problems can be exposed and addressed. Utah’s leaders should recognize that until more data is obtained, criminal injustices can’t be properly identified and resolved. Florida recognized this and is actively providing a solution, and Utah should be next. Until then, Libertas Institute will continue to work to push for added transparency to our criminal justice system here in Utah.