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Report: Utah prison population down, returning parolees up

FILE - Utah State Prison in Draper on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
FILE - Utah State Prison in Draper on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s prison population has dropped the past two years, but the number of people on parole and probation returning for various crimes and violations sharply increased, a new state report shows.

Total inmates decreased from 7,026 to 6,276, an 11 percent drop since 2015, according to Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice data released Friday.

Also, violent offenders make up 68 percent of the prison population, up from 60 percent in 2015.

At the same time, prison admissions from parole increased 39 percent, up to 1,876 the past year compared to 1,347 the year before, and account for more than half new incarcerations. Though the number of probationers returning to prison declined the previous three years, it jumped 43 percent the past year, the report shows.

Utah lawmakers passed sweeping criminal justice reform in 2015 known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to slow the steady parade of drug offenders to the state prison by offering treatment instead, provide more bed space for serious and violent criminals, and reduce recidivism.

Policymakers and prosecutors have been divided on whether the law, approved as HB348, is working.

"This data shows we’re continuing to head in the right direction for Utah’s criminal justice reforms,” said Doreen Weyland, who helped write the report.

The prison population is 18 percent lower than was projected without reforms, according to the report. Offenders incarcerated for drug possession only now make up 2 percent of inmates, down from 5 percent two years ago.

Still, the report notes that because the state is only two years into the initiative, continued review and analysis is needed to address any unintended consequences and to ensure decisions are based on data.

"It should be emphasized that policies in HB348 are multifaceted and complex, with many still in need of sufficient time before the impact on Utah’s criminal justice system can be realized," according to the report.

Like other states, a large percentage of Utah’s parolee returns to prison within 36 months of release. Because parolees far outnumber inmates, keeping them as well as those on probation from returning to prison are priorities for the initiative, the report shows.

Other findings include:

• admissions to substance use treatment for clients in the criminal justice system jumped 21 percent

• a 21 percent increase in the number of people in the justice system receiving mental health treatment.

• a decrease in the length of stay in prison for nonviolent offenses and parole or probation revocations.