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John Florez: Renew criminal justice first, then prison

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Lawmakers have the opportunity to downsize the criminal justice system, including prisons, and give greater local control to county governments and jails to become laboratories in finding innovative ways in protecting society.

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Buy now! Last day of the sale! That’s what some lawmakers say who rush to build a prison — any prison — without considering its purpose, the future nature of crimes and the public’s safety. Their focus seems to be on relocating the prison for private development instead of focusing on prevention, suppression of crime and pubic safety. They appear to ignore the cost of relocation, which past studies say would cost $460 million. Lawmakers have a fiduciary responsibility to keep our institutions up to date in solving current problems in the public’s interest.

Some, however, have suggested lawmakers should first renew Utah’s criminal justice system and then determine the kind of lockup facilities that will be needed for the next 50 years. In doing so, legislators should consider the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice definition of criminal justice: “… an apparatus society uses to enforce the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals and the community.”

Utah's criminal justice system is an outdated set of subsystems. It includes the Legislature that determines what is a crime; courts that adjudicate cases; the probation department (part of corrections) that provides the court with recommendations on sentencing; and board of pardons that determines how long a felon stays in prison and what conditions must be followed on parole.

Each of these subsystems determines the prison population, length of stay, recidivism, supervision and rehabilitation. Public safety should be the system’s bottom line, not building more prisons or simply land development. When 54 percent are returned to prison for parole violations, and with 70 percent of those for technical violations, we should declare failure and start new.

Before determining the need to relocate the prison, lawmakers ought to first consider renewing the criminal justice system. Only then can they determine the kind of prison Utah should have as part of a strategy for protecting and enforcing its “standards of conduct.” The renewing can be done in phases that can help facilitate the future of the prison in an efficient manner.

The first phase should be to downsize the prison and expand the use of local jails and local community resources that could begin reducing the prison population by deploying inmates to county jails. Rehabilitation of felons can best be done, and is less costly, when family and community are involved. County governments and jails should be seen as a key way to focus local community resources, such as education, employment, training, health, mental health, churches, community groups and volunteers.

County commissioners have the ability to coordinate county resources and view management of offenders as a local economic development effort. Prison treatment programs could be downsized and used to leverage local community resources.

The second phase would focus on reducing prisoner recidivism rate by having parole agents report to the board of pardons to assure completion of parole contracts by parolees and parole agents. Concurrently, legislators should revise sentencing guidelines to respond to current problems, and courts should require timely recommendations from probation officers.

Forget the sale. Lawmakers have the opportunity to downsize the criminal justice system, including prisons, and give greater local control to county governments and jails to become laboratories in finding innovative ways in protecting society.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on theCommission on Hispanic Education. Email: jdflorez@comcast.net

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