SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said his criminal justice reform bill introduced Wednesday that includes making drug possession a misdemeanor will result in an "epic shift" in how the state treats offenders.
Hutchings, the sponsor of HB348, said at a news conference that what's being called a justice reinvestment initiative has been seen as the state getting "soft on crime," but in reality, "this is Utah getting tough on criminals."
The bill's Senate sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said many Utahns touched by substance abuse will benefit from the effort to reduce recidivism by focusing on treatment.
"This isn't about policy. It's about people," Adams said. "In trying to help the individual, when you help them, that help and that treatment goes way further than that person. It helps their family."
State Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook said Utah's "tough on crime approach" has been costly and has led to mass incarceration, overcrowded prisons and unacceptable recidivism rates.
"For too long we have been the hand that holds them down," Cook said. "Now it’s time for us to collectively decide that we will be the hand that helps them overcome."
The long list of reforms in the bill were in a report unanimously approved last November by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, although prosecutors raised concerns about reducing the penalties for drug possession.
Ron Gordon, executive director of the commission, said although the reforms have been used successfully in other states, they are not an "off the shelf" solution to slowing incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders.
Gordon said although the goal of the effort has been to make Utah safer, the bill faces challenges.
"This is a heavy lift," he said. "We are asking for very substantive changes."
The commission's recommendations, which also include strengthening probation and parole supervision, were developed with the assistance of the The Pew Charitable Trusts public safety performance project.
The report found that without action, the state will have to house an additional 2,700 inmates by 2034, a 37 percent increase in the prison population, which has already grown by 18 percent since 2004.
Hutchings said he has been talking for some time about the need to address the number of inmates who return to prison after being released, some 46 percent within three years.
But it wasn't until lawmakers started looking at moving the Utah State Prison from Draper that "now, all of a sudden, everyone wants to listen" since reducing growth in the number of inmates will cut costs.
A site for a new prison has yet to be recommended by the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission and because new locations are being reviewed, likely won't be until after the session ends next month.
Hutchings said the price tag for the reforms in his bill are close to $11 million and other, related legislation would add about $4 million to that cost. Not taking action to reduce the prison population is projected to cost $542 million.
Both Hutchings and Adams said some form of Medicaid expansion would help offset health-related expenses.
Lawmakers are currently considering several proposals, including Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah alternative, for using the funds available to cover low-income Utahns under President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
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