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What Should Utah’s Next Prison Look Like?

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2014 Summer Newsletter >>

What Should Utah’s Next Prison Look Like? ...and more importantly, what should Utah’s ENTIRE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM look like?

Here’s the short answer to both of those questions: smaller, more humane, and more efficient than the Utah State Prison in Draper...with a design that is driven by the strong, abundant research about crime, punishment, and policy that has emerged in the twenty five years since Utah built its last prison facility in Gunnison. 

 Ever since the state’s Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) got seriously serious last year about moving the prison in Draper, many Utahns have been focused on the “Development” part of PRADA. Plenty of members of the public have expressed concerns - directly to the PRADA members, as well as in the Editorial pages of the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune - that the relocation is driven more by monetary interest in redeveloping the prison site than by any real need to improve the prison itself. 

 The ACLU of Utah has no position on whether the Utah State Prison should move from its current location. However, we do believe that a relocation presents an incredible opportunity to build a facility that better serves public safety objectives as well as the state’s constitutional obligations. Whatever your perspective on why this relocation was initiated in the first place, we encourage our supporters to start thinking of the prison relocation as a PRISON REDESIGN instead. 

 Unbeknownst to most of the general public, the state is actually engaged in TWO important processes related to corrections and criminal justice, not just the prison relocation conversation. 

 Of course, the second process is much less well known than the work of moving the prison. This process is known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and it is actually very pertinent to the conversation about how big the new prison needs to be - wherever it ends up being located. 

 This spring, the state officially partnered with the Pew Public Safety Performance Project to conduct a full review of Utah’s criminal justice system. Policy analysts from Pew will examine data from the court system and the Department of Corrections to assess what factors are driving Utah’s prison population which, in contrast to overall national trends, continues to grow. Based on Pew’s data analysis, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice - in partnership with community partners and other government bodies - will craft a Utah-specific package of reform policies to help bend our prison growth curve downward.

 Pew and other non-profit organizations have conducted Justice Reinvestment processes in other states over the past eight years, seeking to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration, in favor of more common-sense approaches to criminal justice.

 For example, in South Carolina, where spending on corrections exploded by 500% between 1983 and 2008, policymakers began working with Pew in 2009 to avoid spending up to $175 million in construction costs and $66 million in operations costs. Lawmakers eventually passed a comprehensive Justice Reinvestment Act in 2010 that included common sense sentencing reforms, improvements to inmate release policies, stronger parole and probation practices, and mechanisms for ongoing oversight of continued criminal justice reform. Thanks to these reforms, South Carolina avoided having to build nearly 2,000 new prison beds. 

 The ACLU of Utah is confident that Utah can do at least as well as South Carolina and avoid the fate that has been projected for our correctional system: an additional 3,184 beds by 2033, according to MGT of America, the Prison Relocation Commission’s “Master Design Consultant.” 

 The Justice Reinvestment process will continue throughout the summer and the fall, eventually resulting in a package of reforms that will be presented to the Legislature for a vote during the 2015 session. The Prison Relocation Commission’s work will parallel the Justice Reinvestment work guided by Pew and the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, resulting in a 2015 recommendation to the Legislature about a site for the new prison. 

 The Commission has already announced three primary working groups to facilitate its goal of recommending to the Legislature an appropriate site for the new prison. There will be a group that oversees the review and selection of the new prison site, and another group that will investigate possible ways of financing the construction of the new prison. Most importantly, there will be a working group dedicated to ensuring that criminal justice reforms and programming needs are taken into account in planning the design and operations of the new prison. 

 The ACLU of Utah will be vigorously engaged in both of these processes. We consider this an important opportunity to realize long-time criminal justice reforms and systemic improvements that will enhance public safety, preserve civil liberties, and strengthen our communities. 

Where to find more information about the PRISON RELOCATION 

Get the latest from the ACLU of Utah, with our civil liberties and social justice perspectives (and extra education!) mixed in...

    - at www.acluutah.org/criminal-justice

    - email Public Policy Advocate This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to get added to our “Prison Relocation & Justice Reinvestment” email list, for weekly (or less!) updates sent right to your email box

     Find meeting locations and other important Commission information at le.utah.gov and search for the Prison Relocation Commission under “Interim Committees.” You can also navigate to the Commission information from the ACLU of Utah website. 

 Attend the public meetings of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice throughout the Justice Reinvestment process...

   -  get the full schedule of CCJJ meetings for 2014 at www.acluutah.org/criminal-justice/item/810-jri-meeting-schedule

 Sign up to receive public notices and agendas for any meetings of the Prison Relocation Commission and/or CCJJ 

    -  go to the Utah Public Notice website

       at www.utah.gov/pmn/index.html and select “State Government.” The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is listed  as its own entity; the Prison Relocation Commission is listed as a “Legislature” entity.