My Op-ed: Utah can move past ‘lock ’em up’ prison mentality

I have had the privilege of serving on the committee that oversees the budget for the judiciary and public safety in the Utah Legislature for 14 years. Over that time I’ve witnessed repeated failed attempts to reform and improve our criminal justice system — changes known to improve public safety and positively impact lives.

For the first time in nearly a generation, all the key players have come to the table and put forward what I believe will be the greatest reform we have ever seen. With these changes, I honestly believe the state of Utah will become a model for the nation.

Most of us agree the state has an important role in keeping our society safe by removing criminals from our communities. We also recognize the vast majority will eventually be released back into our neighborhoods, and we must demand that they re-enter as better people, less likely to break the law.

Over the years the Legislature has implemented stiffer penalties and longer incarceration times, with worsening results. We’ve seen more and more offenders failing and returning to prison. In 2013, two-thirds of those incarcerated in Utah had already served time and been released on probation or parole, nearly half of whom had committed no new crimes but had simply failed to get their lives in order.

Under the current system there are few options but to drop the hammer and send them back to lockup. It’s as though we’ve designed a corrections system that makes it incredibly difficult to get out of the cycle of lawbreaking and incarceration.

This year, thanks to the decision already made to move the Utah State Prison and the cost savings and tax generation that will come from that move, the stars are aligning for real criminal justice reform. A necessary catalyst is the building of a new prison to state-of-the-art standards, capable of supporting evidence-based programs. This will allow us to separate people who really are criminals at heart from those who got sideways with the law, and treat each of those groups in the right way.

Treating a drug addict or someone with mental illness the same as a hard-core criminal has proven over time to do nothing to break the cycle. Our own data proves that when you put an addict and a real criminal in the same prison space together, all you get is a criminally-minded addict. We can no longer afford to run the system this way. It does not work.

I, along with Sen. Stuart Adams, have introduced legislation, HB348, which will make landmark changes to our current criminal justice process. One of the most important proposed reforms will be a thorough inmate assessment upon entry into the criminal justice system for placement on a track.

There are four general tracks into which offenders could potentially be placed:

1. The criminally minded who show little propensity to respond to treatment. They want to act like criminals and will be treated that way, with plenty of prison space to keep them off the streets.

2. People who have broken the law to support a drug addiction. They will be separated from the criminals, serve their time and given a rigorous supervision plan of treatment and monitoring after release.

3. Those who have committed crimes and suffer from mental illness. They will be separated from the criminals, serve their time and also given a rigorous supervision plan of treatment and monitoring after release.

4. Those who have no criminal tendencies but struggle with addiction or mental illness. They will be placed into a therapeutic setting, in or out of incarceration, and will receive treatment and close monitoring upon release.

This type of program is currently impossible at the Draper facility, where the mentally ill and addicted too often must be placed in the same general areas with hardened criminals because of poor prison design. A new prison is a necessary part of this transformation.

In a state that already has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, if we can push forward and institute meaningful reform, we will become a model for the rest of the nation.