Pew Applauds Utah Leaders for Sentencing and Corrections Reforms

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Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law today a sweeping legislation package that will cut the state's prison population by 95 percent and save $500 million, over the next 20 years, while reducing recidivism and protecting public safety.

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This bill marks a dramatic shift in how Utah approaches crime and punishment,” said Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a comprehensive package of criminal justice legislation today, putting his state at the forefront of those advancing research-driven policies designed to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs. H.B. 348 is expected to save taxpayers more than $500 million over the next two decades by cutting projected prison growth by 95 percent. The measure passed the state Senate unanimously and the House of Representatives with a bipartisan vote of 67-2.

“This bill marks a dramatic shift in how Utah approaches crime and punishment,” said Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. “It’s no longer about demonstrating that you can be tough on crime. It’s about getting better results for public safety.

“All three branches of government showed tremendous leadership in defining this new direction and building consensus on the policies needed to achieve it,” he added.

Although Utah has a relatively low imprisonment rate, the state’s prison population grew 18 percent over the past decade, six times faster than the national average. Without reform, it was projected to increase by 37 percent over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $500 million.

The new law will:

  • Prioritize expensive prison space for serious violent offenders by reclassifying drug possession from a third-degree felony to a class A misdemeanor and narrowing drug-free-zone sentencing enhancements to focus on drug dealers who target children.
  • Strengthen probation and parole supervision using evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism.
  • Create graduated limits on the amount of time a probationer or parolee can be returned to jail or prison for a technical violation of supervision terms.
  • Establish a standardized system that allows inmates to earn time off of their sentences for participating in programs designed to reduce recidivism.
  • Reinvest more than $13 million of the cost savings into improving and expanding evidence-based re-entry programs, including mental health and drug treatment.
  • Require oversight of reform implementation by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to ensure accountability.

The new law is based on policy recommendations from the commission, which engaged in an eight-month study of the state corrections and criminal justice systems, with technical assistance from Pew. The commission analyzed data, evaluated policies and programs used in other states, reviewed research on reducing recidivism, and developed a comprehensive set of policy recommendations. Its members are a diverse group of criminal justice stakeholders, including corrections officials and representatives from the Legislature, the judiciary, the prosecutorial and defense bars, behavioral health organizations, and the victim advocacy community.

The commission’s central conclusion was that the state had more effective and less expensive options for holding lower-level, nonviolent offenders accountable while protecting public safety. The commission's full report can be viewed here.

Pew’s public safety performance project and its partners have assisted more than two dozen states, including Georgia, Oregon, South Dakota, and Texas, with similar data-driven analyses and consensus-based policy recommendations.

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The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Learn more at http://www.pewtrusts.org.

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Darienne Gutierrez
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