The big question at the legislature...Will they or won't they?
The big question at the legislature...Will they or won't they?
This update was prepared by Anna Brower, Public Policy Advocate.
Actually, big QUESTIONS, plural. Will they move the prison, or won't they? Will they actually pass some meaningful criminal justice reforms, or won't they? It's too early in the session to guess at the answer, but here are a few updates on these two very big issues.
Prison Relocation: Just too unpopular? Only time will tell.
The Prison Relocation Commission went into the 2015 legislative session on a wave of public protest about pretty much ALL the sites that ended up on its final list of potential (re)locations for the prison. Now the whole enterprise seems on shaky ground.
There is a Prison Relocation Commission meeting THIS FRIDAY, Feb. 6, at 1:00 p.m., in Room 210 of the Senate Building. According to the VERY brief agenda posted online the PRC plans to discuss the report it intends to make to the Governor and Legislature, as well as the possibility of adding new sites to its list of potential prison locations. This meeting is PUBLIC.
Will they discuss the recent resignation of House Speaker Greg Hughes from the commission? Will they make mention of this recent bit of awkwardness in the media, in which Rep. David Lifferth (R-Eagle Mountain) spread the word on his blog that Gov. Herbert preferred one of the Salt Lake locations for the new prison site....and then quickly back-pedaled after the Governor's office politely corrected him?
I'd like to say that all will be revealed in Friday's meeting...but that's not usually how these things work. But I do recommend that folks pay attention, though, since nobody is quite sure what the PRC will recommend to the Legislature and Governor, and we'll at least learn more about that. Word on the street is that the PRC is just not quite ready to make a site commitment...but the Governor seems committed, whether it happens this year or in years to come.
At least the prison relocation process is being connected, if not consistently then at least occasionally, to fledgling efforts to reform Utah's criminal justice system. Those who are on the record for supporting the prison relocation for NON-economic purposes usually fall in one of two camps, both of which inspire valuable conversations about much-needed improvements in our system:
1) those who see the prison move as an opportunity to build better, more humane, more effective correctional facilities - since the state is highly unlikely to ever invest in a higher-quality prison if there is not some economic tradeoff in doing so, or
2) those who feel that any conversation about moving the prison is an opportunity to talk about criminal justice reform - since spending as little as possible on a new prison will be a priority in cost-conscious Utah...which means fewer beds, more reasonable sentencing, better community supervision, and so on.
Justice Reinvestment: How much real reform will survive the session?
Last November, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice surprised just about everyone by issuing a report with 18 robust reform recommendations that, if enacted TOGETHER, could avert nearly 100% of the prison population growth projected in Utah by 2033 by MGT of America. The big battle now will be ensuring that all of these common-sense recommendations - including a few tweaks to Utah's drug laws to bring them into line the federal guidelines and drug policy in more than a dozen other states (such as neighbor to the north Wyoming!) - will remain intact long enough to do some good.
Check out this nice piece by Kimberly Scott in the online Saint George News from today it gives a great recap of the Justice Reinvestment effort up to this point, and connects the reform recommendations to Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant's recent address to the Utah legislature on behalf of the judiciary.
Despite the generally friendly public reception the recommendations have received, and despite the fact that stakeholders from various points along the criminal justice spectrum were involved in drafting them (all backed by significant data collection and analysis by the Pew Public Safety and Performance Project), pushback from prosecuting attorneys and a few county sheriffs threatens the reforms. As one source at the heart of CCJJ deliberations said, "Nobody wants to admit that anything is wrong with THEIR part of the system. People don't want to change, even if we all agree that change is needed."
Luckily, there are many supporters of Justice Reinvestment! In addition to the CCJJ members - and their agencies - that have participated in the drafting of the recommendations, many advocacy groups see this as a priority. To name just a few:
The ACLU of Utah sees the Justice Reinvestment legislation as a critical step forward in reducing mass incarceration in Utah, and a move away from our overly punitive system of justice, which punishes poor people and people of color most harshly.
The Disability Law Center and NAMI-UT consider the recommendations important to helping people who suffer from mental illness disentangle themselves successfully from the criminal justice system, where they are disproportionately represented and suffer particularly severe hardships.
The Utah Prisoner Advocate Network and Utah Prison Support feel that the data collection and reporting requirements for the Board of Pardons and Parole, as well as increasing funding for community-based programming and supervision, as important ways to better serve convicted individuals, while also protecting public safety and satisfying the demands of justice.
Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness (USARA) is hopeful that the drug law reforms will offer hope to people who are already struggling with addition - and whose sobriety and aspirations can be easily threatened by the many negative lifelong consequences of a felony charge.
If you are invested in seeing REAL reform accomplished this year, please contact your legislator and let her/him know that you want to see the Justice Reinvestment legislation (not yet numbered or named yet!) pass intact, as intended by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. You can also email sponsors Rep. Eric Hutchings (R-Kearns) and Sen. Stuart Adams (R-Layton) to thank them for putting forth - and hopefully protecting the integrity of! - this legislation.