Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Utah State Prison population recently crested at a record 6,001. To ease the crowding, lawmakers will push a bill that would result in the incarceration of fewer drug offenders.

With the state prison population climbing and the Department of Corrections seeking more money for more prison beds, lawmakers on Wednesday agreed to support a measure to reform sentencing for drug offenders and ultimately send fewer offenders to prison.

The Drug Offender's Reform Act (DORA) would fund better substance abuse assessment and treatment, and give judges the option to redirect convicted offenders from prison to community-based programming.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, will make his second attempt to get the bill through the Legislature in 2005.

"Last year, we passed this out as a committee bill," Buttars reminded his colleagues before the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee gave its unanimous support. "It's hard to change something that you've been doing the same way for 100 years, but we need to."

DORA could save the state millions, Buttars said.

Over time, the bill's proposed reforms would ease the ever-burgeoning prison population, which two weeks ago crested at a record 6,001 inmates. Over the past two years the Department of Corrections has seen a steady increase in the number of inmates, with women offenders as the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.

Nearly 90 percent of those sentenced to prison have an identified substance-abuse problem, Department of Corrections officials have said.

The bill would be phased in over three years, costing $6.3 million, $12.1 million and $16.7 million respectively. The number of treatment slots in the first year would be 500; with 1,500 the second and 2,069 in year three, according to information from the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), which researched and drafted the proposal last year.

CCJJ Executive Director Ed McConkie said his staff looked to states like Texas, Kansas and others for direction, where similar reforms are in process.

At the request of newly elected Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, CCJJ staff also looked at less-expensive options.

"Every option came out to be a unanimous conclusion by (CCJJ) staff as a legitimate enhancement to the existing system, but it was not reform," McConkie said. "We feel that this is the most affordable, possible way that we can reform the system, change it and realize the major cost avoidance in years to come."

The cost of DORA was its downfall in 2004. The bill passed through both the House and Senate with enthusiastic bipartisan support, but it was never funded.

"This year, we've got more money," bill sponsor Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said.

And the $6.3 million fiscal note for the first year of the three-year reform act will be included among Gov. Olene Walker's budget, McConkie said. Governor-elect Jon Huntsman Jr. has also been briefed on the proposal and, for now, seems to agree that such reforms make sense.

"It's smart sentencing and effective government, everything he's been running on," McConkie said.

That the Department of Corrections intends to seek $15 million from lawmakers next year to build additional prison beds shouldn't trip up the bill, McConkie added.

"If we are doing DORA, in years three and four, (DOC) is not out there asking for a $100 million to build a new prison," McConkie said.

Buttars finds fiscal hope in the savings DORA will bring to the state over time, not just for the DOC but for other areas of public safety, social services and in the incalculable costs to the private sectors. The impact of drug addiction runs wide and deep in families and society as a whole, he has said.

"There are no savings in building (prison) beds," Buttars said. "Once this is in stream, you won't need new beds."