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John Florez: Criminal justice is more than prisons

The Utah State Prison, Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
The Utah State Prison, Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Let’s face it, the original bill to move the Utah State Prison (HB 445) was for the benefit of private developers: “… relocate the state prison … in order to allow private development ….” The public’s interest and cost were ignored.

To their credit, the Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) that was created to study the move is interested in taking a broader look. One member has noted we would be building a new prison without pondering the state’s needs 50 years from now. PRADA’s public meetings have surfaced the suggestion that legislators should first renew the state’s criminal justice system to determine the kind of prison/s to meet Utah’s future needs; a suggestion echoed by the governor’s adviser on criminal justice.

Like all our institutions, technology and globalization have made our criminal justice system obsolete. The problems of crime and public safety have changed, and so must the institutions that worked for a different era.

The 1967 President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice offered a working definition on a system of criminal justice as “an apparatus society uses to enforce the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals and the community.” By that definition, Utah might best be served by seeing prisons as only one element in protecting society.

Prevention, suppression and control of crime takes place at all levels of the justice system. It begins with legislators who determine what is a crime, who gets incarcerated and how best to protect society in the most cost-effective way. With greater emphasis on the front end, felons could be deterred from incarceration by making greater use of local community resources assisting them. Courts, another element of the system, also determine who goes to prison.

Corrections has much sway in determining whether a convicted felon is diverted from prison by the recommendations that probation officers give judges in their pre-sentence reports. Corrections manages prisons and supervises convicts on probation or parole. The Board of Pardons determines under what conditions felons can be released, supervised or returned to custody.

Rehabilitation of felons can best be done when family and community are involved. County governments/jails should be seen as a key way to mobilize local community resources, such as education, employment, training, health, drugs, mental health, churches, community groups and volunteers. County commissioners have the ability to coordinate resources and view management of offenders as a local economic development effort.

Lawmakers may feel pressured to relocate the prison for private development, however the PRADA meetings have allowed further reflection on the long-range effects in serving Utah citizens. It’s important lawmakers take the time to examine how relevant each element of Utah’s criminal justice apparatus complements each other, and make changes as needed that enforce “the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals and the community.”

With new technology, new knowledge and new problems, it’s critical lawmakers take the time to renew our criminal justice system for the 21st century. With time and thought, we can develop a system that is in the public’s interest.

Utah native John Florez has been on Sen. Orrin Hatch's staff, served as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: