Smarter use of correctional funds

One of the driving forces behind the decision to move the Utah State Prison from its present location is based on projected population growth requiring an additional 2,700-new beds to house prisoners over the next 20 years. The issue of increased prison population growth is also based on the fact that our inmate growth has risen by 18 percent, just since 2004. That’s six times faster than the national average. Additionally, the state currently spends $270 million annually on corrections, but statistics show that almost half of inmates released are returning to prison within 3 years.

These factors and others prompted the governor and other state leaders to direct the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice system and provide recommendations for reforms. Their report was issued last November and it provides important information and recommendations directed towards improving, and making more cost effective, Utah’s correction and criminal justice system. For example, findings indicated that in 2013, the majority of offenders sent from court directly to prison were for non-violent offenses and that Utah’s success rate over the past 10 years deterring probationers and parolees from returning to prison was lower than previous 10-year periods. Additionally, even though statistics show diminishing returns related to public safety for longer prison sentences, Utah’s prisoners are spending 18 percent longer periods in prison than they did 10 years ago.

In its report, CCJJ makes 18 recommendations intended to direct policy towards the reduction of recidivism, reduction of costs associated with incarceration and holding offenders more accountable. One recommendation would revise sentencing guidelines for some of the low-level offenders thereby directing the most intensive prison resources more towards the more serious and violent offenders; including those who are involved in drug trafficking.

In addition, the report recommends improving supervision of those on probation and parole by placing more emphasis on immediate sanctions for violations while incentivizing positive behaviors. Recommendations highlight the need for improving offender access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. Treatment is ultimately more cost effective than incarceration because it addresses underlying issues and reduces the likelihood of recidivism. The report recommends proper emphasis be given to local correction facilities by reclassifying misdemeanor traffic violations so jail space is available for more serious offenders.

The implementation of these recommendations will take some time and there will be debate by lawmakers over the extent to which the recommendations should be adopted and become law. Law enforcement and prosecutors will be an important resource in the process as they provide input on the issue of public safety. The long-term criminal justice policy for the state needs to be more comprehensive than simply appropriating funds and building a new prison. It should be directed towards outcomes that will assure public safety and rehabilitate offenders to become productive members of society. We should utilize research and best practices to accomplish these objectives using cost effective approaches.

Written and originally appearing in The Spectrum on January 24, 2015 | Rep. Lowry Snow represents House District 74, which covers the western portion of Washington County. Rep. Snow participates in a rotating column with other legislators from Southern Utah during the annual legislative session.

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