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John Florez: Time to flip the Corrections system

Published: Saturday, Aug. 17 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

We have allowed our Corrections system to become overcrowded, costly and less effective in protecting society. When Corrections keeps asking for more money for bed space, and when more than 95 percent of felons leave prison, and an estimated 60 percent of parolees return to prison, it seems taxpayers should expect more for their money. It's time to flip the system.

Anonymous, AP

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Do it right the first time. Flip Utah Department of Corrections and fix things at the front end rather than the back end. It's time to talk more about diversion, prevention and rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation of convicted criminals should start before they get too far into the criminal justice system, rather than when they are about to leave. Prevention and early intervention are less costly in protecting society. We know rehabilitation of individuals is more effective at the beginning and under crisis, yet Corrections has focused on having felons become incarcerated and then provide rehabilitation over years of incarceration from off-the-shelf help programs.

We have allowed our Corrections system to become overcrowded, costly and less effective in protecting society. When Corrections keeps asking for more money for bed space, and when more than 95 percent of felons leave prison, and an estimated 60 percent of parolees return to prison, it seems taxpayers should expect more for their money. It's time to flip the system.

Corrections has much sway in determining whether a convicted felon is diverted from prison by the recommendations probation officers give judges in their pre-sentence reports. Best practices call for an understanding of the psychosocial and environmental problems that brought the criminal before the court with recommendations for what the court might consider in preventing the offender from committing further crime. However, that's where the system needs fixing. Pre-sentence investigations seem to be limited to extensive descriptions of the felons' history dating back to the therapy they received by the juvenile courts, and make their recommendations that usually call for another psychological evaluation.

The missing piece is one we know is a deterrent to crime — education. Seventy percent of prisoners are illiterate, yet pre-sentence reports lack any information on the felon's level of education and job placement. There is no better therapy and food for the psyche than education and a job. Corrections then could downsize prison therapy programs that are costly, and money can best be used for diversion and community programs.

Corrections should contract with the Department of Education to provide a basic adult test for the pre-sentence report that can be done and available in an hour. Legislation is on the books requiring felons obtain a GED certificate. If the purpose of probation/parole officers is to help felons succeed in the community, they ought to be trained to do so rather than waiting for them to fail and arresting them. This would help probationers and parolees in adjusting to their communities and reduce recidivism.

Flipping the idea from building more prisons to jail contracting with county officials for housing state prisoners would be less costly and increase the use of local resources in helping offenders including: family, church, employers and community groups. The panoply of prison treatment programs could be downsized, and local jails could customize services based on the needs of the current inmate population. Downsize, resize.

Ultimately, it's the Legislature that determines what is a crime, who gets incarcerated, and how best to protect society in the most cost effective way. With greater emphasis on the front end, chances for success rates in prisoners adjusting to society will increase, and in the end it will be local communities that will help make the system more humane with local ownership.

The problems of crime and public safety have changed, and so must the institutions that worked for a different era. It makes the case for flipping.

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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