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First Hurdle Cleared: Justice Reinvestment Recommendations Sail Out of CCJJ!

16 November 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

CCJJ-Press-EventAfter months and months of endless meetings, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) deserved a big pat on the back last week.

On November 12, CCJJ members unanimously approved a solid package of common-sense, moderate reforms to Utah's criminal justice system that, when taken together, are projected to avert nearly the entire anticipated growth in our prisons over the next 20 years. Turns out, Utah's looking more like South Carolina than Oklahoma these days.

That's pretty good news. About $542 million worth of good news, in fact - which is how much money Utah can save by NOT building 2,700 new prison beds in the next twenty years. You can read the full report, released by CCJJ last Wednesday, available for download at the bottom of this blog post.

There are some pretty decent reforms contained in these recommendations. Nothing radical - just a lot of basic changes that are long overdue and almost universally-supported throughout the system. I highly recommend you read the full report - not just because a lot of people spent a bazillion hours researching and writing it, but because it provides great context for why CCJJ made the reform recommendations it did.

But because I know you are very busy, and I appreciate the fact that you are even reading this blog, much less a 25-page report, here are, in brief, the 18 recommendations that emerged from Utah's Justice Reinvestment process (I have used the exact wording of the recommendations from the report, except for where noted in italics, so to dicipher what this all means, you really will have to read the report!):

  1. Revise drug penalties to target chronic felony offenders and drug dealers who sell in the presence of minors and where minors are likely to be.
  2. Revise criminal history scoring to avoid double-counting and limit factors to those most relevant to the risk of re-offense.
  3. Revise sentencing guidelines for certain lower-level crimes.
  4. Establish formal graduated revocation caps for technical probation revocations.
  5. Establish formal graduated revocation caps for technical parole revocations.
  6. Establish a system of earned time credits offered by the Board [of Pardons and Parole].
  7. Implement a graduated sanctions and incentives matrix [for Adult Probations and Parole].
  8. Establish a system of earned compliance credits on supervision.
  9. Expand treatment services.
  10. Establish treatment standards and certification.
  11. Establish standards for recovery and reentry support programs.
  12. Enhance transition planning, supports and services for offenders returning to their communities.
  13. Reclassify moving vehicle misdemeanors in order to focus jail resources on higher-level offenders and relieve undue burdens on localities.
  14. Establish evidence-based jail treatment standards.
  15. Establish a county performance-incentive grant program.
  16. Provide better support to victims of crime.
  17. Provide enhanced training for decision makers and community supervision officers.
  18. Require collection and reporting of key performance measures and establish oversight.

The recommendation that has received the most attention (check out some unnecessarily dramatic media reports here and here), of course, is that first one, about revising drug penalties. You can read my discussion of this recommendation, and the resistance to it, in my most recent blog post. I'm sure it will come to surprise to no one that the ACLU's position on drug laws is decidedly non-nuanced: we think the Drug War has been a miserable failure with horrible collateral consequences, especially for poor people and communities of color. That's why we support full legalization of marijuana, and a dramatically different approach (public health, not criminal justice) to dealing with the public's use of other drugs.

However, CCJJ's recommendation to de-felonize simple possession is neither of these: it does not legalize, or even substantially de-criminalize, drug use, and it does not significantly alter our current method of "helping" drug users and abuers by arresting and punishing them. It does two simple things only: 1) removes the threat of prison, and 2) keeps most simple drug possession crimes from destroying people's lives with a felony conviction.

I've heard some of even the most conservative legislators at the Utah Capitol say that they don't agree with locking up drug addicts. If it were their daughter or brother or visiting teacher struggling with substance abuse, they'd want that person to get help - not a prison sentence.

These legislators don't have to agree with the ACLU to feel okay about the drug de-felonization recommendation. Rather, they can just agree with (take your pick): an assistant U.S. Attorney, the entire Board of Pardons and Parole, a vast majority of care providers from the substance abuse and mental health treatment community, the State Court Administrator, the Cache County Sheriff, the new Police Chief of PROVO... They all spoke up to endorse this particular reform. All stated a desire to see fewer drug addicts and mentally ill people behind prison bars, and all felt that this recommendation would help accomplish that. And, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lund pointed out, the federal government has already headed down this road, so Utah isn't exactly cutting a dangerous new path in drug policy.

Nonetheless, fact that CCJJ passed the full report, including ALL 18 recommendations, unanimously, is a pretty big deal - and it calls for me to do a little bit of crow-eating. If you recall from last month, I was pretty bearish on Pew's predictions that these recommendations could help Utah avoid 97% of the future prison growth that MGT of America has projected we will see by 2033. Frankly, I doubted that such impressive bed savings could be accomplished with such seemingly minimal reforms.

You see, Utah's Justice Reinvestment Initiative recommendations don't look anything like what the ACLU of Utah would design - where are the drastic sentencing guideline changes and significant reform to the Board of Pardons and Parole? And how can we really accomplish reform without revamping Utah's broken indigent defense system, or without any meaningful discussion of Utah's extremely high percentage of inmates serving time for sex-related offenses? You get the picture.

 But hope springs eternal, even for ACLU advocates working in Utah. And because I wanted to believe that Pew's projections were reasonable, I spent a couple of hours talking to Pew analysts about their process and assumptions. They very patiently explained the very conservative way in which they approach their projections, and answered all my non-math-person questions about the statistical analysis undergirding the numbers.

The conversation left me feeling very optomistic about Utah's Justice Reinvestment Initiative. As Pew explained it, they only project bed savings from recommendations that produce clear-cut statistical results. If too many assumptions have to be made about program implementation or policy fidelity, they don't project ANY impacts. (They were also quite clear that the drug penalty reforms would very likely produce significant bed savings - up to 5% of the entire prison population - in just the next three years or so).

That means that if all the reforms are successfully implemented, there could be even greater prison population suppression. In fact, we might even see a meaningful decrease in our prison population after ten or twenty years, rather than the 30%+ increase predicted with no reform.

Now, that big "IF" is contingent upon several other critical "ifs." IF the legislature adopts the full package of proposals. IF the legislature FUNDS the full package. IF CCJJ really is as committed as it has said it is to strong oversight of these reforms, as well as continued reforms. IF funding and higher standards for mental health and substance abuse treatment statewide produce the kind of geographic availability and increased capacity that is required for some of these reforms to work.

 Justice Reinvestment has gotten this far, though, largely intact, thanks to the support and hard work of many thoughtful, dedicated individuals who want the best for Utah communities, families and residents. Which is plenty of reason to celebrate - and to hope!