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NUMBER CRUNCHERS FEEL CRUNCH WHEN FIGURES DON’T QUITE ADD UP

SHARE NUMBER CRUNCHERS FEEL CRUNCH WHEN FIGURES DON’T QUITE ADD UP

When 2 + 2 equals 5, who ya gonna call?

The number crunchers.Far from the spotlight of the debate over the effectiveness of minimum-mandatory prison sentences for sex offenders, Chris Mitchell and Cliff Butter work to find accurate numbers for those acting out the drama on center stage.

Mitchell and Butter, along with Valerie Stack and Larry Bench, make up the Corrections Department's Bureau of Planning and Research. Stack inputs data and does some analyzing, and Bench does long-term research for the department.

Mitchell and Butter "put out fires."

"We respond to questions," Mitchell said. And lately there have been a lot of questions on the subject of minimum-mandatory sentences.

About two months ago, Gov. Mike Leavitt quoted the same numbers some legislators were using as rationale for repealing part of a 12-year-old law creating minimum-mandatory prison sentences for sex offenders.

The numbers were wrong.

Leavitt used statistics presented by Mitchell and Butter at a Sentencing Commission meeting in October 1993. What the governor didn't know was that in the December meeting Mitchell and Butter presented another report to the Sentencing Commission that corrected the mistakes of the first report.

Or so they thought. Those numbers also turned out to be wrong, but both Butter and Mitchell were out of town and out of reach.

"I was in Bluff, Utah," Butter said. "I got out of the shower that morning, and I heard the news (and the numbers). There was no way to rescue anybody."

Making mistakes is a cardinal sin for a number cruncher because cor-recting mistakes can be impossible, especially when they're part of a heated and emotional political battle.

"No matter how hard you try to correct your numbers, you never know where (they've) floated," Mitchell said. They hate to hear numbers being thrown about carelessly, especially when they know they're wrong.

"When you're living and dying every single day by numbers, they mean something," Butter said. "You don't just (throw out) numbers."

So, back to the drawing board, or more accurately, to the computer screen. And this time all of state government was relying on the duo for accurate data with no more embarrassing mistakes.

Thursday was d-day (delivery day) for Mitchell and Butter. They presented their findings to the Sentencing Commission as part of a 53-page report.

Their data shows those who will make critical decisions on the issue how the 1983 law affected corrections. Among many other things, their research says those sentenced to minimum prison sentences served on average longer than their minimum sentences.

They found that of the 266 people sentenced under the tough law, only 61 of those still in prison are even scheduled for release. Thirty-four have been paroled, and 15 got out under different circumstances, five of whom died in prison.

They looked at the length of time inmates spent for similar crimes both in the 10 years preceding the tough law, HB209, and 10 years after it went into effect. They found that the law increased the average length of stay by 19.64 months.

"It was a painful data-collection process," Butter said. One problem was that each county had its own way of reporting data. That is something officials are looking at changing because of Butter's and Mitchell's research on this project.

There are other changes, such as agencies' ability to share information quickly, that may come as a result of recent problems with data collection and analysis.

Government officials often put the pressure on Butter and Mitchell, asking them to project prison populations and the cost of enacting new laws. But some of the more intense pressure on the pair has been in recent weeks.

Butter and Mitchell might not be the movers and shakers on big decisions, but they definitely influence those who are.

"It's kind of a secret little power we have," Butter says, laughing.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Sex offender inmates

In 1980, sex offenders made up 10.9 percent of the total inmate population in Utah. In 1994, they made up over 25 percent.

1980 112

'81 134

'82 118

'83 188

'84 183

'85 250

'86 357

'87 401

'88 444

'89 561

'90 577

'91 644

'92 698

'93 715

'94 756