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John Florez: Governor, put public safety first

FILE — Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert, delivers his State of the State address from the House of Representatives at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.
FILE — Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert, delivers his State of the State address from the House of Representatives at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

So who cares? Utah has 17,801 offenders under supervision in our communities, about 260 are wanted for parole violation, a number of recent violent crimes by parolees, a police officer killed, and a governor who appears more focused on efficiency in Corrections rather than public safety.

The governor didn’t seem too concerned that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) passed last year might have contributed to the recent crimes committed by parolees that were released under the new JRI guidelines. The JRI was designed to release low-risk parolees into our communities where they could be treated for substance abuse and mental illness, thus reducing recidivism and cost of incarceration. However, it appears the Legislature did not provide the funds for those community programs. Nevertheless, it looks like the governor has let Corrections release low-risk offenders into the community without making sure the community rehabilitation programs were in place.

The chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court told lawmakers JRI won't work and “could lead to more crime without money to provide mental health and drug abuse treatment for offenders.” The Legislature should suspend paroling prisoners under JRI guidelines until they are re-evaluated and the required community treatment programs are in place. To do otherwise may make our communities less safe.

For the governor to start an investigation of Corrections to find which employees may have been derelict in carrying out their duties seems more like a political effort to avoid responsibility for allowing release of low-risk offenders without first providing the required treatment programs. The governor has directed his management and budget director to investigate the Board of Pardons and Corrections. The director said the governor wanted to reduce recidivism by 25 percent as part of an effort to find more efficiencies in Corrections. Earlier, the governor’s office denied the governor ever attached a number. The investigation simply masks the problem and further demoralizes dedicated employees who have been understaffed, underpaid and without the needed resources to do their job.

The problem may not be inefficiencies in these two agencies, rather the failure of the governor and lawmakers to assure all parts of the JRI were in place as Chief Justice Durrant stated. It seems the governor and Legislature were eager to make changes in the criminal justice system without realizing the tremendous task it is to change such a longstanding institution of our society. The system is in need of renewal. It has become a set of disjointed subsystems where everyone and no one is accountable. The involvement of the Utah Judicial Council would be most beneficial in articulating what the Utah criminal justice system ought to become in keeping with social change. As my late friend and former Utah Supreme Court Justice Frank Wilkins would say, “That’s big medicine.”

Because of the prison relocation, the Legislature was eager to show their interest in rehabilitation as a way of reducing cost. As such, they decided to see how they could parole and rehabilitate offenders at the back end of the corrections system, rather than how to divert offenders from going to prison in the first place, diversion and rehabilitation at the front end.

The recent tragedies are mourned by all of us, and a grim reminder of the importance of making sure our elected leaders keep our citizens safe. There is nothing more important than human life.

Utahn John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His Bush 41 White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member.