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Report: Utah’s criminal justice reform falls short without access to good treatment

Legislative audit cites inadequate treatment options, hefty workloads for probation officers

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns with low-level drug convictions are back in court answering new charges more often, not less, in the wake of statewide criminal justice reform.

“Utah has not achieved its goal to reduce recidivism,” reads a legislative audit out this week on the state’s 2015 Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

The review attributes the trend in part to overworked probation officers and a lack of adequate and available treatment programs.

The law has met a goal of cutting down Utah’s prison population, a response to concerns about cost and capacity. But the rate of nonviolent drug offenders facing new criminal charges climbed from 29% in 2013 to 37% in 2018, the audit found.

The changes five years ago reduced sentences for low-level drug crimes. As a result, judges granted probation instead of the prison time they typically ordered under the old system. But the state wasn’t prepared to manage the resulting wave of people placed on pretrial release just as use of painkillers and heroin surged in Utah, the auditors wrote.

“The data suggests Utah’s criminal justice system has not yet developed an effective response for offenders who suffer from serious drug addiction,” reads the 182-page report.

Auditors determined there are too few treatment services available, especially in rural parts of the state. They based that finding on an outside survey of probation officers and on their discussions with county sheriffs and judges.

Separately, surveys of medical providers who specialize in substance abuse revealed concerns about the effectiveness of Utah’s public treatment services, even after the state beefed up funding to $11 million a year starting in 2017. The Legislature reduced the money after expanding Medicaid, a move expected to help fund treatment.

And while probation officers aren’t handling a big boost in the number of cases, they’re managing higher-risk offenders who require closer and more skillful supervision.

After auditors presented their findings Tuesday to a legislative panel, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the need for more targeted substance abuse and mental health treatment and probation officers’ hefty caseloads mean “we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

The audit revealed issues with requirements in the law to track data so judges and lawmakers could evaluate it.

In some cases, government agencies simply didn’t gather the information needed to compile progress reports. Without a standard system, they used different metrics and software. It means the state doesn’t know which treatment programs or other sorts of interventions are working, the auditors wrote.

Auditors recommended the Legislature create a single group to gather and publish data and assign local panels to gauge the sorts of treatment programs a county needs.

The law also reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor offense, so some sheriffs reported the change “has taken the ‘teeth’ out of the law and offenders are no longer motivated to seek treatment for their drug addiction,” the report says.

Representatives from across Utah’s criminal justice system said they agreed with the findings. The audit highlights challenges the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has encountered for years, said Executive Director Kim Cordova.

Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Mike Haddon agreed. He told the legislative panel that offenders’ success after prison depends on several factors from medical care to their ability to get jobs and housing.

“That’s how we’re going to reach success and that’s how we’re going to see recidivism reduce,” he said.

A separate criminal justice audit found that lapses in communication and data sharing within the state threaten public safety. The auditors recommended the creation of a single statewide data portal so law enforcers, judges, lawmakers and others can get access to crucial information.

Auditors also found that Utah law enforcers’ tendency not to report warrants to a national database can lead to further crimes out of state.

As an example, a suspect in a child sexual abuse case in Utah was later picked up on similar charges in Colorado on similar offenses that might not have happened if Utah had reported its warrant and flagged the suspect for extradition, the report said.

The scrutiny led to a 2019 law requiring the state to report each warrant for a violent felony to the database; the state now says it has reported each felony.

A third audit linked a decrease in court-ordered fines to newer judges who often suspend them, requiring defendants to pony up only if they violate probation or parole.

The amount of a fine is more closely tied to where a person is sentenced, rather than the type of offense, and varies greatly throughout the state, the auditors found. They recommended the Utah Judicial Council track judges’ compliance with laws requiring minimum fines.

The auditors don’t believe the downward trend is tied to the 2015 law, saying it had dipped for about two years before the law took effect.