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John Florez: Renew corrections for the 21st century

Published: Saturday, June 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Talk of moving the prison without first considering the public's welfare — public safety — is irresponsible. Lawmakers ought to first renew the state's correctional system so it can move it in to the 21st Century.

Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

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Move the prison? First move the whole correctional system in to the 21st century. Think about the taxpayer and public safety. With 99 percent of prisoners returning to society, it's vital to have a system that assures public safety and helps prisoners adjust to society.

The current system includes: the Department of Corrections which oversees prisons and adult probation and parole; and also the Board of Pardons and Parole that determines when a prisoner is released from prison or placed on parole. The system was designed for a different era with different problems. Now, with new technologies and new resources there is the opportunity to redesign a more cost-effective system to do what it is supposed to do — protect society. Like most systems, its parts often become disconnected with turf problems and lose their ability to work around a common mission.

The board plays a major role in determining the prison population by its decisions. It decides the length of stay and what an inmate must do to prepare for release or parole. It determines when a prisoner can be paroled and "the conditions of parole" — the rules the parolee must follow. Corrections then assigns a parole agent who is supposed to help the parolee make a successful adjustment in the community.

That's the way it's supposed to work; yet the public and board do not know how successful the board's decisions are in helping parolees make a successful adjustment to society. It is estimated that 50 percent of parolees return to prison for violating their conditions of parole, not for new crimes. Any private company with such a production record would be out of business. The board does not appear to have a system to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of its decisions. It depends upon Corrections to collect data for them.

A major problem is the board has the authority for paroling individuals, but has no power to supervise parole agents to assure its orders are carried out. Corrections has that responsibility. When things go wrong, those in charge can revert to, "It's not my responsibility." So, who is responsible? Where is the accountability?

With today's technology, there is no reason why state agencies cannot have reporting systems to monitor and evaluate their effectiveness. What they can tell you, in great detail, is what they do to justify their existence. But can the board prove parole even works? Do parolees commit fewer crimes and return to prison less frequently than those who complete their sentences and return to the community?

Rather than keeping an inefficient and disjointed system, lawmakers ought to have the parole agents supervised by the board where it can monitor and be accountable for results of its decisions. Parole agents ought to have training in how to help parolees access community resources, in addition to the primarily law enforcement training they receive. The focus should be on helping parolees succeed, rather than waiting for them to violate their conditions of parole. Otherwise, consider not using parole agents and instead give parolees their own debit card so they can be responsible for their own rehabilitation. It's less expensive and may cut down on recidivism rates.

Talk of moving the prison without first considering the public's welfare — public safety — is irresponsible. Lawmakers ought to first renew the state's correctional system so it can move it in to the 21st Century.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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