Utahns offer input on criminal justice system reform

Published: Thursday, April 3 2014 6:40 p.m. MDT

An inmate hangs his hands outside the bars of his cell.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Archives

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SALT LAKE CITY — Several Utahns concerned about the criminal justice system called the state "punitive" and said the system needs major reform.

More than a dozen people testified Thursday at a public hearing held by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, many asking that inmates be seen as people and be treated with respect, as well as their families.

Much of the discussion focused on the need for additional resources, particularly mental health and substance abuse resources. Several told the commission that people need help before, during and after serving a prison sentence — especially when transitioning back to regular life.

The meeting was the second of a series of public hearings meant to facilitate discussion of criminal justice policy changes.

"I'm actually very happy and excited to see this room packed for nearly three hours of people listening and speaking to criminal justice reform," said Ron Gordon, executive director of the commission. He called the meeting a success.

In the 2014 State of the State address, Gov. Gary Herbert called for reform of the criminal justice system in Utah "as a whole." He said it's within this context that relocation of the Utah State Prison in Draper should be discussed.

Herbert asked for a comprehensive review of the current system and said he wants to reduce recidivism, help offenders become law-abiding citizens and give judges better tools to do so.

Just looking at recidivism isn’t enough, according to Anna Brower, public policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. She said the entire pipeline of the criminal justice system needs to be addressed to take advantage of the opportunity for systemic reform.

"We believe that it is possible to achieve significant change in Utah's criminal justice and correctional systems — change that results in safer and more stable communities, while at the same time maintaining a fair and just system and keeping communities, families and individual lives intact whenever possible," Brower said.

She called for more attention to be given to the mentally ill, those suffering from substance abuse and the poor. She said racial profiling and disparities of those incarcerated also need to be confronted boldly.

When Milton Davis of Holladay called Utah "a very punitive state," his comment was met with multiple shouts of "Yes!" He said one of the problems is mandatory sentencing, and Utah needs to become a "softer, more loving and more kind state."

Others said sentences need to reflect the sentencing matrix and not be excessive. Some told the commission they believe prisoners should receive healthier food, better education, improved skills training, better health care and more assistance transitioning into society.

Emotional testimony came from family members of current inmates, many frustrated with state inmates being held in county jails. They complained of poor services and attitudes toward the families and prisoners. When pressed for an answer, all four panel members said they'd choose to serve time in prison rather than a county jail if they had the choice.

Gordon said the reform study is meant to coincide with discussions of relocating the prison. He said it's a critical time to talk about the entire process, as the scale of the prison is impacted by criminal justice.

"It is daunting, it could be overwhelming," Gordon said. "The only way to approach it is to put everything down on paper that we've talked about and then take one thing at a time."

The third public hearing will be held Friday, April 4, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Cache County Council Chambers in Logan.

Email: madbrown@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Madeleine6

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