Problematic criminal justice reforms leave officers arresting same suspects as recidivism rates climb

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ST. GEORGE — The criminal justice reform initiatives that began in 2015 have put offenders back on the streets who should not have been, law enforcement officers say, and led to recidivism rates that continue to climb. Often, it is left up to law enforcement t0 pick up the slack where the initiatives have failed in the battle to maintain public safety amid the ever-changing landscape of policing in Southern Utah.

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The measures brought about by the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives – more commonly referred to as JRI – were intended to slow the growing costs of the state correctional system and reduce recidivism rates. These reforms have created massive changes in the criminal justice system across the state, impacting every aspect of the system, from the Board of Pardons and Parole to the officers on the street.

The issues affecting law enforcement was one of the topics of discussion during a town-hall style meeting held in Cedar City last month, where the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice was seeking feedback from the various sectors on what is working and where the reforms are lacking. Tom Ross, who was appointed to oversee the commission, said they were aware there are gaps in terms of the expectations behind the initiatives and what has actually materialized over the last six years.

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.

Reform to recidivism

It was during the meeting that Cedar City Police Chief Darin Adams said the state has not provided the necessary funding for programs designed to reduce recidivism as expected by JRI. 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 is leading to greater criminal activity, as well as an increase in violent incidents.

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

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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.”

Washington City Police Chief Jason Williams expressed similar concerns during an interview with St. George News. Williams said officers in Washington City are dealing with the same individuals over and over again, and there have been a number of recent incidents where the suspect was booked into jail only to be released hours later and arrested a second time for a new crime later that same day. In some cases, he said, they are arrested by the same officer.

This is not only frustrating for the officers, he said, but it can also lead to burnout when they continue their efforts to keep the public safe by getting these individuals off the street, only to find them out in the community within hours of the arrest.

Williams cited two recent incidents, one of which involved the arrest of a suspect who was involved in a violent altercation that left a man seriously injured. After a multiagency search, the suspect was apprehended several miles away, interviewed and then booked into jail.

“That same suspect was released before the officer even had a chance to finish the report,” Williams said.

He went on to say that ultimately, it is the community that is paying the price in both property and violent crimes. Moreover, the deficiencies have also done a disservice to those who are caught up in the system.

Williams agreed with Ross that the reforms, in principle, were a positive move, but he added that the actual results have been a dismal failure and appear to only favor the suspects without taking into consideration the price that is being paid by the public.

Public safety seems to be the tradeoff for these reforms, he said.

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.

From use of force to de-escalation

Another shift that took place in the law enforcement field that was directly linked to the initiatives involves the overhaul of policies and protocols that have been implemented by police departments across the state.

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Many of the changes involve the use of force and de-escalation training requirements. These areas of policing have been the intense focus of a number of police departments across the state, including the Santa Clara-Ivins Police Department, one of the agencies that has undergone a number of changes that began a few years ago.

Santa Clara-Ivins Police Chief Robert Flowers told St. George News the department decided to be proactive and establish protocols and additional training for the officers under the premise that getting ahead of any potential problems is far more effective than trying to fix something after it is broken.

The department implemented additional practices and training to teach officers the art of de-escalation to reduce the risk of having a violent encounter with an individual. The training, Flowers said, not only enhances officers safety but also increases the safety of the residents they serve, particularly when those practices become part of the department culture. 

The shift from use of force to de-escalation is a massive one, considering that for many years police have been trained to meet force with more force – drawing their weapon and ordering the subject to drop their own weapon, and so on. 

Now, in training rooms across the state, officers are participating in exercises and watching videos of officers performing these neutralizing techniques.

Mental health behind the blue line 

A number of police departments are also focused on the mental health of the officers by ensuring there are policies in place to help them deal with a particularly stressful incident, such as calls involving a higher level of violence or crimes against children.

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Flowers also arranged for his officers to undergo an annual mental health checkup to address any issues present. An annual evaluation can remove the stigma associated with asking for help, he said. These changes are designed to not only benefit  the officer and the agency but also to improve communication between the department and the community. 

This is supported by numerous studies that have shown that use of force and other controversial incidents can damage relationships between the police and the community. 

Incidents large and small

Implementing programs to address potentially volatile incidents and catch them early is also part of the shift that has taken place, even prior to the protests that took place last year, and was one of the issues the St. George Police Department has addressed head-on. 

St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead told St. George News in a previous interview the department set up a task force to deal with larger-scale incidents and to take on a proactive approach to address the issues early before they have the chance to escalate. He also said communication is a key component in those efforts.

He went on to say that building strong relationships and mutual trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve are critical to maintaining public safety and effective policing and also helps to bridge the gap between the officers as they interact with the public. 

Accelerated changes in policing

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Policing has gone through accelerated change since the 1990s, and today, the profession is marred by the ever-looming recruiting and retention crisis as well as the ever-changing landscape of the communities they serve. 

According to Police One, officers have been vilified and portrayed by many as racist and brutal, an aspect of policing that has not been missed by those serving within the profession. Left in the wake of that is the respect and admiration that many enjoyed in the past has been damaged. 

Another significant shift took place involving an officer’s responsibilities, which has been more focused on social issues, including homelessness, addiction and mental health issues they are now tasked with addressing on a daily basis. These issues were brought up in several of the interviews and have impacted nearly every aspect of policing across the board. 

The inability to detain offenders, combined with the lack of programs to monitor and rehabilitate them after release, has led to a rise in recidivism rates across the state and has created a revolving door mentality when it comes to care, custody and control – sentiments that were brought up during several of the interviews for the series.

“This isn’t working,” Williams said. “So maybe we can go back to the drawing board until we can fix this.”

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 entries below.

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

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