SALT LAKE CITY — A study underway that's expected to offer proposed legislation to curb increases in incarcerations is being closely watched by lawmakers working to come up with a location for a new state prison.
"We will have to look at some need for growth over the next 20 to 30 years in this new location," said House Prison Relocation Commission Chairman Brad Wilson. "The answer we're all trying to find is what that new growth rate will be."
The Republican representative from Kaysville said he is "absolutely fully supportive of the reform we're going through and the studies we're doing. We'll just have to see how it all comes together in the end."
The prison commission is expected to have recommendations on a new site for the Utah State Prison at Point of the Mountain in Draper, as well as how to finance the project, when the 2015 Legislature begins meeting in late January.
Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert's office announced the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice also is developing recommendations for the upcoming legislative session with help from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The governor, who called for a review of the state's criminal justice system in his State of the State address in January, said he was seeking "a new roadmap" from the recommendations he'll see in November.
"The prison gates must be a permanent exit from the system, not just a revolving door," Herbert said. "Just like every other area of government, we need to ensure we are getting the best possible results for each taxpayer dollar."
Pew, a nonprofit research organization, already has provided a report showing Utah's prison population grew 6 percent over the past three years, even as the national prison population fell 4 percent.
The report, presented to the justice commission in July as an introduction for policy development, said while Utah's incarceration rate remains below the national average, the prison population has grown 22 percent in the past 10 years.
Almost half of the current prison population is incarcerated for parole or probation revocations, and 63 percent of new court commitments are for nonviolent crimes, including drug possession and use.
Ron Gordon, executive director of the justice commission, said the timing is right to study what can be done to increase public safety by reducing recidivism because of the pending prison move.
"If we're going to relocate the prison, it's the ideal time," Gordon said, noting the governor made it clear in his State of the State speech that criminal justice system reform must be part of the relocation discussion.
After several years of considering relocating the aging state prison, lawmakers voted last session to approve setting up a commission to find a site and figure out how to pay the estimated $471 million cost.
Gordon said there's no specific goal to reduce the size of a new state prison. But he said reforms that lead to a decline in the number of inmates who get sent back to prison will have an impact.
"We believe we can slow the growth," Gordon said. "That does mean fewer people over time will be going to prison."
Zoe Towns, a Pew public safety performance project manager, said reforms enacted in other states have shown it's possible to be safer and spend less on criminal justice.
"It's a policy decision, ultimately, how big the state wants its prison to be," Towns said. "It can be overwhelming if you know your prison population is big and it's growing."
Projections showing Utah's prison population will climb 37 percent over the next 20 years — from just over 7,200 now to more than 9,900 in 2033 — come at a cost, Towns said.
"If that's money well spent, then that's money well spent. But I think the question is: Do you have to spend it? Prison population size is a huge part of the conversation," she said.
The Senate chairman of the prison commission, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the study is likely to have the most impact on long-term planning for an expansion of the new prison.
"As we look long term, I think the Pew study and what the governor's recommending will make a big difference," Stevenson said, including whether future expansion requires another site or just additional acreage.
Although he said the prison commission is "not close" to any decisions, discussions have started with officials in Box Elder, Weber, Salt Lake, Tooele and Utah counties, and a proposed site could be announced in October.