Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
In this file photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, double-tiered bunks are seen in one of the cells at a formerly closed housing unit at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, in Elk Grove, California.

Utah’s decision to join several other states in a campaign to reform criminal corrections and sentencing policies is a reflection of a necessary evolution in how society deals with nonviolent offenders caught in a cycle of recidivism. This move has the potential to bring significant social and economic benefits by moving away from policies that have grown the nation’s prison population.

The effort announced by Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to mirror campaigns in 24 other states aimed at putting more emphasis on rehabilitation policies, and thereby reducing prison construction budgets by hundreds of millions of dollars.

This state-by-state reform initiative could portend a historic adjustment of traditional attitudes toward those who commit nonviolent offenses without diminishing the importance of meting out appropriate punishment for criminal behavior.

Utah is already at the forefront of similar reform efforts involving the juvenile justice system. The state has recently noted a beneficial trend toward lower rates of incarceration for minors accused of nonviolent offenses. There is growing evidence that programs that direct nonviolent offenders away from long-term incarceration are effective in reducing recidivism and have not resulted in an increase in crime rates.

There remains a pressing need for the state to review its corrections policies. Utah’s prison population has grown 22 percent in the last decade and is projected to grow another 37 percent in the next 20 years. The rate of recidivism is high: Of those released from prison, 46 percent return within three years.

A significant contributor to the problem is the imposition of mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines. They have resulted in an enormous increase in the number of people sent to prison for nonviolent crimes, principally those involving narcotics trafficking. Mandatory-minimum sentences significantly increase a prisoner’s average length of time behind bars. In Utah, the average length of a prison sentence has increased 18 percent in the last 10 years.

Utah is joining with the 24 other states that have participated in a program called the Public Safety Performance Project managed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice began a collaboration with Pew earlier this year, and now enters a second phase: the formation of specific policy and statutory reform proposals for the Legislature and correctional and justice agencies.

Other states participating in similar projects are enjoying significant results. The Georgia State General Assembly reduced the number of nonviolent juvenile offenders held in secure facilities, expecting to save $85 million through 2018. In South Dakota, the state should be able to avoid paying $224 million for new prison facilities in coming years. In Idaho, a law this year authorizes $33 million in programs offering an alternative to incarceration. It is expected to save the state $288 million in new prison construction costs.

In Utah, a separate initiative has resulted in a sharp decline in the rates of arrest and incarceration of juvenile offenders, as documented in a recent report in the Deseret News. For more than a decade, juvenile justice agencies have worked to focus more on prevention than punishment. It does this by focusing on the individual circumstances of minors suspected of criminal activity.

The change in focus is part of a national trend to help at-risk kids deal with individual problems rather than resorting to the “scared straight” philosophy that had previously governed justice policies.

Nationally, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention says that between 1997 and 2011, arrest rates for juveniles, including violent crimes, have dropped by nearly 50 percent. During the same time period, the rate of confinement for juvenile offenders has also dropped by half.

In Utah, the juvenile courts and the state’s Department of Human Services have partnered to track the progress of programs that put intervention and prevention ahead of incarceration. Programs demonstrating success have been accelerated; less-effective initiatives have been curtailed. Utah’s rate of confinement has dropped by 57 percent since 1997, a reduction significantly greater than that measured in other states over the same time period. The overall rate of juvenile crime has also dropped during the same period.

The governing philosophy behind Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project is that helping keep offenders out of trouble through educational opportunities ends up being far less expensive than the cost of building new prisons.

Even if successful, such efforts may not mean that a state with a population growing as fast as Utah’s will be able to avoid the need for new prison construction. But prudent efforts grounded in solid data analysis can help ensure that large numbers of nonviolent offenders don’t enter an endless cycle of incarceration and recidivism. That cycle harms both prisoners and taxpayers.