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Guest opinion: This bill paves a way for a successful path out of the criminal justice system

Learning from mistakes in the business world is a principle that should extend to the criminal justice world as well.
As criminal justice reform continues to evolve, we need better strategies in Utah to ensure people successfully reenter society — and avoid boomeranging back to prison.
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Efforts to address mass incarceration have largely focused on people entering the system — whether through fixing unfair bail practices or reducing sentences for low-level offenses. Little attention, however, has been focused on the fact that at least 95 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons return to the community. Locking people up and throwing away the key is not only short-sighted rhetoric, it is also not reflective of how the justice system actually works.

As criminal justice reform continues to evolve, we need better strategies in Utah to ensure people successfully reenter society — and avoid boomeranging back to prison.

And there is solid data on why Utah should make reentry solutions a priority. Despite what you might think, new arrests are a much smaller driver of mass incarceration than probation and parole violations. According to the ACLU Smart Justice Utah Blueprint report published in September 2018, the number of people that returned to prison from community supervision increased by 26 percent from 2016 to 2017, far outpacing those from new court commitments, which increased by just 7 percent. In 2017, parole violations made up more than half (51 percent) of all admissions to prison. Combined, probation and parole supervision violations accounted for three-fourths (76 percent) of all prison admissions in the state.

Moreover, many people go back to prison for technical violations, which means that they broke a parole or probation rule — like missing a meeting or curfew — but did not commit a new crime. One study that tracked groups of parolees after the Justice Reinvestment Initiative legislation passed in 2015 showed that 46 percent of a post-JRI parolee cohort returned to prison within a year of release from technical parole violations.

In order to end mass incarceration, we must improve supervision and reentry policies in Utah.

Last month, Utah made a first step to improve reentry when Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB21 into law, removing the requirement that presentence investigation reports be completed by POST (law enforcement) certified employees. Instead, these forms will be vetted and certified through the Department of Corrections. The new law is expected to save the state’s Adult Probation and Parole, or APP, department $185,000 annually and will provide parole agents more time and resources to deliver effective supervision. Additionally, Herbert’s 2020 budget recommends an additional $1.8 million to hire 22 additional investigators to prepare the pre-sentence investigation reports.

Allocating additional funding for transition programs and resources while freeing desk-bound APP officers from paperwork has the potential to lower recidivism rates and stabilize people in the community. However, it is important to note that more intensive supervision for people that are not considered high-risk actually leads to increased failure on probation or parole. The level and length of supervision must be tailored for the individual. This highlights the significance of the presentence investigative reports, which provide recommendations on the particular social, mental or physical needs of the person assessed.

HB21 and Herbert’s budget proposal both emphasize the importance of reentry reform by providing resources for parole agents so they can do their jobs more effectively. Given more time and resources, supervision agents will be better equipped to identify and meet the individual needs of a person on probation or parole. This change — coupled with a rejection of excessive, overly punitive focused supervision — will result in a higher completion rate and a lower rate of reincarceration.

If Utah wants to stop the revolving door between imprisonment and supervision, it must invest resources to help individuals meet their basic needs: housing, employment, transportation and medical treatment. It is very difficult to be a functioning and productive member of society without one of these basic needs, and it is even more difficult to be successful on probation or parole without all four.

HB21 can be a catalyst to think about how supporting APP agents can help people on probation and parole meet their basic needs for successful transitions. For example, legislation that funds APP social workers can add a crucial layer of support and services for people transitioning back to our communities. Additionally, APP and Board of Pardons and Parole policies dealing with technical violations should be adjusted to prioritize resolving reentry challenges to avoid unnecessary and costly incarceration.

This level of reentry reform is not a novel idea. Other states have supported reentry programming to help reduce recidivism. For example, Georgia’s Reentry Services Unit provides reentry support with housing, community resources, mentoring and restorative justice. Similar programming for APP can reduce prison and jail populations by encouraging alternatives to incarceration for technical violations and helping people get a stable foothold in the community, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars down the road in incarceration and supervision costs.

HB21 should start the broader conversation of how to improve outcomes for people on probation or parole. If we are committed to ending mass incarceration in Utah, reforms must be bold and must aim to lower the number of people cycling in and out of prison. Herbert, the Utah Legislature and state agencies that oversee community supervision must take bold steps to address the root causes that lead to failure and amend policies that unjustly land people behind bars for actions that, under any other circumstances, would not result in a prison sentence.