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Criminal Justice Re-cap of 2015 Session: Part 1!

20 March 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

2015-Criminal-Justice-ReformGoing through my notes from the legislative session, I am thrilled to report that there was a TON of progress (and, in a few cases, a little backsliding) in many areas of criminal justice reform.

This update was prepared by Anna Brower, Public Policy Advocate.

 For those of you who get most of your news of the legislature, let me reassure you - LOTS of VERY good things happen up at the Capitol during the session! They just aren't always the most "sexy" issues, and often most or all of the legislators agree, so there's no exciting conflict for the media to cover. 

There was so much good stuff going on, that it's going to take a few updates to get through. So bear with me! I'll try to make all this news as brief and pertinent as possible - with lots of links to follow in case there are particular issues/areas that you would like to learn more about. And, as always, feel free to email me directly to clarify any of this information - or if you have ideas of how we can work together to continue progress on the topic! 

Oh, and before I dive in, we owe plenty of kudos not just to our own staff - Marina Lowe (Legislative & Policy Counsel), John Mejia (Legal Director), Reinard Knutsen (Office Manager), and others! - but to plenty of partners who really drove these successes forward: Libertas Institute, Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Catholic Diocese, USARA & NAMI-Utah, the Disability Law Center, the Unified Fire Authority, USAAV/UAATP, and a whole bunch of other folks I'm inadvertently leaving off and will feel terrible about later. 

Today's edition hits the big pieces of legislation with which the ACLU of Utah was involved, and which are most directly related to criminal justice reform. We'll get to the odds-and-ends and other items later this week and into next. 

HB348 (HB348S01) - "Criminal Justice Programs & Amendments" - Sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings - PASSED, to be signed by GOV. HERBERT

  • What it does: A LOT of great stuff. Reduces initial drug possession penalties to Class A Misdemeanors, creates higher standards for treatment programs for justice-involved people, offers incentive grants for counties to improve evidence-based practices, adjusts sentencing guidelines for some low-level non-violent offenses, institutes reporting requirements for Parole Board and other entities, authorizes Sentencing Commission to create a formal matrix of incentives/sanctions for parolees & probationers, and more. 
  • What it doesn't do: Don't get me started. The important thing is, it's a great piece of a legislation, Rep. Hutchings & Sen. Adams should be commended, and it's an important step in the right direction. I did mention in past posts that there were some last minute compromises that are captured in the first substitute bill (largely due to pressure from county attorneys, as well as some law enforcement folks, to roll back the drug law reforms) and some other random amendments that had nothing to do with the bill's original intent (these were not the creation of the sponsor, or CCJJ, or anyone else closely involved in the JRI process), but these shouldn't be viewed as failures or significantly impacting the bill for the worst. Pew still projects that the reforms, as passed, will avert up to 95% of the projected prison population growth in Utah by 2033. That's good news! 
  • ACLU reaction: Generally supportive. We are pleased, but wanted more (of course). 

HB454 (HB454B02) - "Prison Development Amendments" - Sponsored by Rep. Brad Wilson - PASSED, to be signed by GOV. HERBERT

  • What it does: Creates a NEW iteration of the Prison Relocation Commission, which will be known as the Prison Development Commission. Gives the PDC authority to pick the site, but that selection MUST be approved by the legislature and governor (in a special session, probably sometime this fall). Staffs the commission, etc. AND, surprise, offers a bonus "sweetener" to any city where the prison ends up (the new host city can charge new sales tax, which makes this concession feel directed squarely at SLC). 
  • What it doesn't do: The bill doesn't say where the prison will be, it doesn't say which legislators will be on the commission (though many will likely carry over from the PRC), doesn't say exactly when the special session will be. It doesn't name the final five sites being considered for placement, but you can review those in the MGT of America presentation attached to this email (two in Tooele County, two in Utah County, and that "airport location" in Salt Lake City). It does NOT give the Commission authority to move ahead with building the prison on a specific site; final decision must be approved. 
  • ACLU reaction: Generally supportive (no position on the sales tax thing!). In case you missed it, the ACLU of Utah and many partner organizations are on the record as "pro-relocation." We're agnostic on the eventual site, we just can't pass up an opportunity to do better by Utah state prison inmates (and the public they will eventually end up living with again).  

SB11 (SB11S01) - "Prescription Database Revisions" - Sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler - PASSED, to be signed by GOV. HERBERT

  • What it does: This one I call, "the best little bill you never heard of." It didn't get much media attention during the session, aside from constant cheerleading from the ACLU of Utah, the Unified Fire Authority and Libertas Institute. This bill makes clear that law enforcement must get a warrant to search the names of specific people in the state's prescription drug database. In short, it makes sure that THIS doesn't happen again. It also creates a positive legislative template for the many states that still, unfortunately, allow law enforcement to sift through our prescription drug records without probable cause, as demonstrated to a judge. 
  • What it doesn't do: Despite what some law enforcement representatives have said, this bill does NOT make it impossible for police to solve drug crimes. Unfortunately, this bill also doesn't stop our nation from dealing with drug problems as CRIMES rather than health care issues. 
  • ACLU reaction: Thrilled! 

HB386 - "Body Cameras for Law Enforcement Officers" - Sponsored by Rep. Dan McCay - Introduced in House hearing, DID NOT PASS 

  • What it WOULD have done: Attempted to establish a "baseline" policy for all Utah law enforcement agencies using body cameras. There were big sticking points, though, for law enforcement, civil liberties groups and others at the table. Should there be consequences if an officer doesn't record a critical incident? How do we protect the privacy of people who appear on camera as part of law enforcement recordings? What about other first responders at the scene, such as firefighters and EMTs, who need to be able to get honest answers from victims (who may fear getting in trouble)? What access do media and the public have to recordings? The primary reason that this bill did not move all the way through the legislature this year was, these questions have not be adequately answered. 
  • What it WOULDN'T have done: The bill would not have mandated that agencies use body cams, only that if they DO use them, 1) they have a policy and 2) the policy meets some basic requirements as outlined in the bill. Also, this bill would not prevent officer-involved shootings - nor will the use of body cams prevent all officer-involved shootings. I say this as a reminder that there are deeper community-police issues that cannot be solved by the presence of technology. Eric Garner...Dillon Taylor...Tamir Rice...James Barker....all these fatal incidents were captured on video, and pretty much nobody feels good about how those situations have turned out (or not turned out).
  • ACLU reaction: Sort of relieved. We want to help work out some of these big privacy/retention/consequences-for-not-recording issues before this bill is adopted into statute. 

To be continued....