Nearly 7 years into justice reform initiatives in Utah, are the desired results being seen?

Composite image with background photo by TxKing/iStock/Getty Images Plus; overlay photo by Utah 778//iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Utah’s justice reform efforts began more than six years ago as part of efforts to address the state’s growing prison population by providing treatment and successful reentry programs for nonviolent offenders. These reform initiatives have impacted every facet of the criminal justice system across the Beehive State.

Stock image of St. George Police Department response | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

In Utah, the number of prisoners has skyrocketed since 1983, with a 390% spike in the number of people incarcerated. By 2018, nearly half of those incarcerated were pretrial detainees. According to a report from the Urban Institute, if that growth was left unchecked, the prison population was expected to grow another 37% by 2033, growth that would require an additional 2,700 new prison beds to house the inmates.

Moreover, the institute says, the costs associated with the previous rise in the state’s prison population were staggering: more than $250 million each year to the taxpayers.

As a result, the Utah Legislature launched efforts in 2014 geared toward criminal justice reform by introducing  H.B. 348. The bill, Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments, passed in 2015 and was part of a series of Justice Reinvestment Initiatives designed to slow the growing costs of the state correctional system, such as staffing, beds and other related expenses, by moving low-level, nonviolent offenders out of prison and into community supervision.

A portion of the money saved from a drop in the prison population was to be reinvested in programs and treatments designed to help offenders avoid new crimes.  The legislation allowed for a systemic change to track offender outcomes, including rates of reoffending, which by 2015 were dismal, as nearly half of all offenders were back in jail on new crimes following their release from prison. 

The bill provided $4.5 million annually to community treatment centers, and over the next two years that number increased to $6 million annually, an effort that by 2019 had diverted more than one-third of all defendants from the prison system into mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. Another change was focused on developing community supervision standards and an incentive grant program to support county programs that were proven to reduce recidivism.

Stock image | Photo by Pornpak Kynatorn/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The reform efforts were projected to save taxpayers more than $500 million over a 20-year period through accompanying budget measures. 

The sweeping changes included juvenile justice initiatives that were launched in 2017 to address the spike in youth crimes, citing research that revealed nearly 80% of first time juvenile offenders were less likely to reoffend but were removed from the home nonetheless. According to a study conducted by the Nolan Center for Justice, the costs associated with out-of-home placements were markedly higher than community supervision: $95,000 per youth per year on average, which is roughly 17 times higher than the cost of community supervision.

Legislation signed in 2020 emphasized the implementation of the most effective programs for offenders with addictions and/or mental illness while in prison. At the same time, the initiatives were designed to strengthen the state’s probation and parole systems by deploying immediate punishments and rewards for offenders who either cooperated or violated the terms of their supervision – a model that has been shown to sharply reduce recidivism rates in the offender population.

The changes addressed sentencing guidelines for drug crimes as well by reducing first and second drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and removing the tiered sentencing structure for marijuana possession offenses. At the same time, any charge involving a “drug-free zone” was subject to sentencing enhancements to better protect children. 

In March 2020, bail reform measures designed to level the playing field for the accused across the state, regardless of their socio-economic status or race, were also passed. A year later, a bill that restricted the release of booking photos or mugshots, under the premise the accused is innocent until proven guilty even in the court of public opinion, was passed.

And the results?

According to the Urban Institute study, violent crime and property crime rates that had been on the rise across Utah prior to the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives began to level off and then drop after the changes were implemented, and recidivism rates followed suit. By 2019, the study states, the number of prison inmates dropped by 1,200, leaving those beds open for more violent offenders.

However, according to the Utah Crime Report, in 2020 there was an overall rise in the number of crimes committed, excluding rape, which was down by more than 10%. The number of robberies and aggravated assaults increased, as did the number of homicides by more than 44%.  Additionally, property crimes and thefts were at an all-time high: 32% higher than the national average.

At the same time, the report also shows a 20% drop in the number of arrests across the state.

The Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General was asked to evaluate the impact of JRI on Utah’s county jails specifically and on the criminal justice system in general. The findings from the year-long performance audit revealed that 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.

The audit showed the changes have been effective in securing prison beds for violent offenders by reducing the number of nonviolent prisoners, but support and funding purportedly earmarked for the diversion programs for those low-level offenders was sorely lacking. Moreover, the added funding for local corrections agencies and programs to provide oversight and accountability were found to be lacking.

Infographic depicting progress of programs implementing as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative | Image courtesy of the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General, St. George News

In fact, the study revealed many changes have not been implemented at all.

Strengthening probation and parole supervision and efforts to improve reentry and treatment services were only “partially implemented.”

The only objective marked as “completed” is the increased availability of prison beds for violent offenders.

In summary, the report stated, “Utah has not achieved its goal to reduce recidivism,” and went on to say the “criminal Justice system lacks the accountability called for by JRI.”  

The United States – land of the incarcerated 

Nationally, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Less than 5% of the world’s population lives in the U.S., but the country houses nearly one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, mass incarceration has crushing social and economic consequences and “reinforces systemic patterns of racial inequity across our society, with vastly unequal treatment at every step.”

The study continues to say that it has been well established that overcriminalization and an excessive reliance on punitive enforcement has led to the problem of mass incarceration — with more than 2 million behind bars and another 9 million inmates who cycle in and out of the country’s massive network of local jails.

Those numbers continue to climb, with an additional 4.5 million people who are on probation or parole, leaving more than 70 million defendants who have amassed conviction histories that carry lifelong consequences that affect not only the person convicted but their families as well.

It was amid rising imprisonment rates and the realization that incarceration had no real effect in reducing certain types of crimes that sweeping changes took hold across the nation. Utah is one of 34 states to pass initiatives focused on justice reform in an effort to diminish the justice system’s footprint across the state, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

While the reform initiatives have been effective in reducing the prison population, the programs, funding and support appear to have fallen short in terms of reducing recidivism.

This report is part of an ongoing series by St. George News that will provide 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. 

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

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!