Personal Freedom

Criminal Justice Reform Coming to Utah

In his 2014 State of the State Address, Utah Governor Gary Herbert said:

Addressing population growth also involves improving our criminal justice system and providing structure for individuals to become productive members of society. There has been a great deal of discussion about relocating the state prison. This is a discussion worth having, but it must be done in the larger context of reforming our criminal justice system as a whole.

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. The prison gates through which people re-enter society must be a permanent exit, and not just a revolving door.

In light of the Governor’s priority to address criminal justice reform he has instructed Director Ron Gordon and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to make reforms by the end of the calendar year. This will include reviewing and changing policy as well as proposing legislative reforms for next year’s session. CCJJ has adopted this review project as its priority study item for this year and has been conducting town-hall style public hearings around the state to obtain feedback and suggestions from the public on criminal justice reform.

Libertas Institute has been following this process closely and attended the recent hearing in Salt Lake. During the hearings, some of the themes and issues raised included mental health, substance abuse, issues related to family members of those incarcerated, programs in jails, and indigent representation. In addition to seeking public input, CCJJ will seek input from various groups and stakeholders with expertise in criminal justice and will also conduct internal policy reviews. Director Gordon has also sought technical assistance through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative—a collaborative nationwide project from the Department of Justice and The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States.

Last week, experts from Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project met with CCJJ to outline ways they can help use data analysis to identify areas that may benefit from efficiency reforms. The Pew project has been a multi-year nationwide study of state criminal justice policies and metrics that have yielded dozens of reforms to increase efficient use of public dollars in achieving positive public safety outcomes. So far, Pew has assisted over half the states in the nation in diagnosing the factors driving prison growth and identifying options for reform.

In Utah, Pew will collect and analyze data in order to help policymakers use data-driven decision making in effecting evidence-based reforms. CCJJ will meet with Pew over the next few months and hopes to have some findings by this fall. Additionally, Pew has a collection of options from the recent reforms in other states that have worked. Popular reforms include expansion and adjustment for parole and probation in order to alleviate prison populations and ensure better transition for released inmates.

This reform effort is important because while incarceration rates have begun to decline after a long surge, prison populations in America have been exploding dramatically across the country over the last 20 years. 1 in 104 American adults are behind bars, 1 in 33 are on parole or in jail, and recidivism rates are still stubbornly high and have remained fairly constant in the last 10 years. This puts a strain on public budgets as the cost of incarceration can be much higher than other alternatives. While Utah is fortunate to have a lower than average crime rate and incarceration rate compared to other states, population growth in Utah will burden public safety resources in the future without some reform to increase efficiency.

We commend the Governor and CCJJ for taking on this task and are pleased to see collaboration with, and assistance from, Pew. We plan to pay attention to these reform efforts and would like to hear from you. If you have ideas or suggestions for criminal justice reform in Utah we would be happy to pass them along. Contact us here.