Ravell Call, Deseret News
Wire on a fence at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Wednesday, March 5, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice unanimously approved a series of proposed reforms Wednesday intended to reduce prison population growth, including making drug possession a misdemeanor.

The vote followed concerns raised by prosecutors that reclassifying simple drug possession from a third-degree felony to a class A misdemeanor would limit both their ability to negotiate pleas and the incentive for drug users to seek treatment.

Gov. Gary Herbert said after accepting the commission's "Justice Reinvestment Report" later in the day that he hasn't decided whether he supports the move, which will go before the 2015 Legislature that begins meeting in late January.

"I'm not ready yet to say yes or no," the governor told reporters, acknowledging the concerns. "At the end of the day, we want the same results. It's not just a matter of warehousing people. It's a matter of getting them fixed."

The governor predicted "a very healthy debate during our legislative session" and said he wasn't ready to get caught up in the details of the report.

"We need to digest it and understand it," he said.

Herbert said there is a "practical aspect" to the proposed reforms, a savings to taxpayers from curbing prison population growth.

"If we don't get a handle on this, it's going to cost us an additional $500 million over the next two decades," he said.

It was the governor who called for the comprehensive review of Utah's criminal justice policies, in his State of the State speech in January, to find a way to stop the "revolving door" at the Utah State Prison.

The Pew Charitable Trusts public safety performance project was brought in to help produce the report, which contains 18 recommendations, including revising the penalties for drug offenders.

The intent of the revision is to ensure prison beds are used for serious and violent offenders, including those who sell drugs to minors, while reducing recidivism by focusing on treatment for substance abusers.

Other recommendations include strengthening probation and parole supervision, and improving and expanding treatment and services for offenders returning to their communities.

Despite spending $270 million annually on corrections, the report says taxpayers are not getting a "strong public safety return," since nearly half of the inmates released end up back behind bars within three years.

While there is no price tag yet on the recommendations, the report states the cost of not taking action to reduce the prison population is $542 million, because space will be needed for an additional 2,700 inmates by 2034.

Ron Gordon, the commission's executive director, said a key to the success of the report's recommendations will be reinvesting that savings into community resources such as substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said he has been "continually amazed at the prominent role drug and alcohol abuse plays in crime," with as much as 80 percent of criminal defendants having some substance abuse problem.

Durrant praised the commission for being "clearly unafraid" of re-examining "some long-held and basic assumptions we've had about our criminal justice system" and said the recommendations hold great promise.

Attorney General Sean Reyes called the report a "tremendous beginning," but said broader support will be needed from Utahns.

"As Utahns, we will all benefit — not just in the short term, but particularly in the long term," Reyes said.

The commission moved quickly to approve the report after a short discussion of the concerns raised by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on behalf of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.

Gill, a commission member, said prosecutors are concerned that reclassifying simple drug possession would limit both their ability to negotiate pleas and the incentive for drug users to seek treatment.

The prosecutors wanted the commission to keep the crime a third-degree felony but reduce the maximum amount of prison time from five years to 30 months. No vote was taken on their proposal.

Gill told reporters after the brief meeting that he supports "therapeutic justice programs" and described the reclassification as "not a bad idea." But he said there continues to be a concern by all county prosecutors about its effects.

"We were trying to just communicate that, is this too big of a step and do we need to maybe approach it incrementally," Gill said. Prosecutors from around the state are meeting on the issue this week.

Paul Boyden, executive director of the prosecutors association, said the report isn't the final word.

"It isn't legislation, so there's a lot of work to be done. I think it was pretty clear what the general consensus is in the room," Boyden said. "I don't know where the Legislature is going to come down on it eventually."

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said it's not going to be easy to sell the recommendations to the Utah Legislature. Hutchings said it took him awhile to be convinced the state wouldn't be "going soft" on crime.

"I thought that was just fuzzy talk. But the data backs it up. The data has shown us that there is a smarter way to give a safer community, and just having one big sledgehammer to do it isn't the right way. We need options," he said.

Hutchings, who will sponsor the report's recommendations next session, said he wants to make "it very clear we are not in any way going soft on crime. We are going smart on crime."

He said the Legislature's efforts to move the Utah State Prison from Draper have helped focus on the need for criminal justice reforms. Naming a new prison site will also be on lawmakers' agenda in 2015.

"Nobody wants to talk about corrections. They never have," said Hutchings, a member of the commission. "This would not happen if the prison relocation discussion wasn't on the table."

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