It may sound like a broken record, but Utah's prison population is growing faster than the state can build new prisons, and it will continue to grow rapidly for another decade to come.
This time, the tune is being sung by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has just released a study revealing how fast prison populations are growing: An annual growth rate of 12.2 percent has resulted in a doubling of Utah's prison population from 916 inmates in 1980 to 1,814 in 1986.Utah's growth rate ranks 14th highest in the nation, right behind seven other Western states with growth problems even worse than Utah's. (The U.S. average for that period was 8.8 percent.)
Utah isn't as bad off as some other states. And the state is taking steps now to meet prison population problems in the future. A new regional prison is under construction in Gunnison, Sanpete County, and additional construction projects at Point of the Mountain should elevate the prison capacity to 3,200 beds in the next couple of years.
But even that will fall far short of what will be needed. Utah's prison population is expected to soar to 6,600 by the turn of the century. Present projections for prison construction call for about 4,800 prison beds by then.
"By our own estimates, we are still looking for substantially more increases in populations than what we are building to," said Gary W. DeLand, executive director of the Department of Corrections. "Utah can't afford to keep building new prisons forever."
DeLand says Utah's prison growth rate is not necessarily indicative of growing crime rates. Rather it reflects the state's new mandatory sentencing guidelines and tougher prison release guidelines being im-plemented by the Board of Pardons.
As Utah's incarceration rates approach the national average over the next decade, Utah's prison populations will continue to grow rapidly. Currently, Utah's incarceration rate
is 113 per 100,000 people, compared to a national rate of about 200.
The reason, DeLand said, is Utah's past policy of not incarcerating people who probably should have been sent to prison. That policy has since been changed by legislative mandate.
"For a half-dozen years, Utah fell behind the national averages," DeLand said. "We are now going through the process of catching back up. It's like someone who's had his head held under water. When he comes back up he's going to gasp for air. We're gasping for air right now."
Utah's prison population is heavily weighted towards violent offenders. In fact, only a very small percentage of all criminal offenders are sentenced to prison.
"But as the tougher sentencing guidelines kick in, we will see more and more people in the prison system that we can deal with in a less severe manner than maximum-security prisons," DeLand said.
As the populations increase, it will become less expensive, and prison officials will have more flexibility to experiment with such programs as home confinement and electronic monitoring.
Utah is already seeing the effects of higher incarceration rates. When DeLand took over in 1984, the incarceration rate was near 80 per 100,000 population. It has since soared to 113 and is expected to near 200 by the year 2000.
Utah's prison system will continue to feel the pinch of crowding as Utah's rates adjust to more realistic levels. "When your system is as far behind as ours is, it's painful to catch up," he said.