Keene: Utah’s Justice-Reform Effort is Good, Conservative Government
Like most conservatives, I believe public safety should be one of government’s top priorities. As a Right on Crime signatory, I know that it is possible to save taxpayer dollars while keeping communities safe.
Fortunately, Utah’s elected leaders are taking initiative and showing other states how to cut crime rates, focus prison beds on dangerous people, hold non-violent offenders accountable in their communities and keep costs down.
On Feb. 18, Rep. Eric Hutchings and Sen. Stuart Adams held a press conference to announce a reform package designed to reduce recidivism, improve public safety and save the state millions in corrections. The legislation, HB348: Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments, caps an investigative process undertaken by Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ).
Last spring, Gov. Gary Herbert and other state leaders charged the CCJJ with examining the state’s sentencing and corrections policies, and developing recommendations to reduce recidivism and contain corrections costs. Responding to the charge, the commission spent eight months examining Utah’s sentencing and corrections data, evaluating current policies and programs across the state and exploring best practices from other states before unveiling a comprehensive set of data-driven recommendations.
The 21 commissioners are a diverse group of professionals who know Utah’s justice system first-hand. Corrections officials, law enforcement, victim advocates, legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and community-based practitioners were all at the table in this process. Although they represent groups that are often at odds about criminal justice policies, they unanimously adopted the proposals. That is a remarkable accomplishment in the current political climate.
Utah has a well-deserved reputation for basing its policies on data and solid research and HB348 is right in line with that tradition. Utah’s prison population has grown 18 percent in the last decade, which is especially troubling when the national prison growth rate has seen a decline. The policy package makes clear that Utah needs to focus its prison space on chronic and violent offenders. Offenders who pose a threat to public safety and refuse to participate in programs shown to reduce recidivism need to be held in prison.
On the other hand, incarceration is very expensive. Non-violent offenders who can be safely supervised in the community, like drug offenders, shouldn’t be taking up costly prison beds. In short, Utah taxpayers should get the maximum public safety return for their corrections spending.
The proposed legislation will do just that. If adopted, taxpayers will save more than $500 million over the next two decades in avoided corrections spending, averting 95 percent of the projected prison growth. It is inefficient to have the same people cycling in and out of prison. So, the legislation also includes improving programs to help prepare offenders for their release, as well as expanding mental health and drug treatment services and strengthening probation and parole supervision.
An example of the common sense approach in the bill is the recommendation that simple drug possession be a misdemeanor. These offenders would still be held accountable, but would not be placed in prison where they would be more likely to become hardened criminals than to beat a substance abuse addiction. The proposal directs simple possession offenders towards evidence-based supervision and treatment practices demonstrated to change criminal behavior. This improves public safety and costs state taxpayers far less than imprisonment.
Many states have adopted similar sentencing and corrections approaches. Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina have all enacted criminal justice reform packages, and crime rates have continued to decline in those states.
Utah has a proud tradition of being industrious and those strong conservative values permeate its policies. The state Legislature has continued this tradition by moving forward with HB348. These reforms will make Utah safer and state government leaner. As a member of the conservative Right on Crime campaign, I applaud Utah’s thoughtful, deliberative approach to criminal justice reform. That is good government at work.
David Keene is a former president of the National Rifle Association, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union and editorial page editor of The Washington Times.