If you build it, they will come. Matter of fact, if you don't, they will still come.

The recent escapes of state prisoners let corrections officials remind lawmakers of the need for more prison beds. It's the chronic problem brought up during legislative sessions, or when there is a life-threatening incident — and always the same solution. But building more prisons is a solution with no end. If you build them, they will come.

However, is there much thought given to figuring out how to slow prison growth by finding different ways to manage convicted criminals or even prevent crime? New ideas seldom come from those inside the system or the experts. They have vested interests.

Utah continues to have a growing prison population, and corrections officials keep doing the same; except now, the cooperative relationship between the state and county sheriffs that had been developed by past administrations has chilled. It was a creative solution. Past corrections officials developed the practice of contracting with counties to house state prisoners as a way to have a flexible system for managing an expanding/declining prison population and allowing counties to improve their jails. It was a cost-savings venture for both the state and county, without having to build more state prisons.

Legislators would do well to seek ideas from outside corrections to manage the state's convicted felon population. In addition, legislators ought to examine how their lawmaking determines what is a crime and what are the penalties. They set in motion the guidelines that determine who goes to prison. In their effort to suppress crime and protect the public, they seem to have primarily focused on writing tough penalties aimed at punishing the criminal.

Taxpayers have a problem. Utah spends millions of state and federal dollars on the corrections enterprise, but what are we getting for our money? Seventy percent of convicted felons are in our communities under parole or probation, but do we know if our citizens are safer because of that? After all, isn't that the bottom line? Do we know if probationers commit less crime than other convicted criminals for whom the court did not order probation? Do we know if those on parole commit fewer crimes than those released after completing their sentence?

We have created a labyrinth of "treatment" and social services to "help the offender" succeed, but what about the victims? Who is helping them? For every symptom, we have created a special "therapy" for it. We spend more money on consultants, special projects, studies and programs; but all we have created is an industry and full employment for professionals and creative entrepreneurs. Yet, they cannot tell us how all our tax money has made our communities safer. Just don't tell us more money is needed to study that, too.

Why not try something radical, like examining how our sentencing guidelines could reduce crime and incarceration rates; or, how improved pre-sentence investigations can reduce prison population? And how can probation and parole agents help people access community resources when their training focuses primarily on law enforcement? What if prisoners were paroled without supervision, given a credit card they could use to obtain services from all those public agencies that are supposed to help people like education, employment, mental health, drug programs? And what if the staff person providing the service would earn bonus points in a paycheck? Parole staff could then be reassigned to prison duties since local police are the ones who arrest lawbreakers, anyway. So, why not try something new? Now guess who will oppose it?

What have we got to lose?


Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: [email protected]