Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Stop building prisons at the bottom of the hill and think about how best to deter crime and protect society, John Florez suggests.

The Utah Legislature reminds me of the story of how the city fathers of a little town, located at the bottom of a hill with a long winding road, solved the problem of the many accidents caused by cars going off the road. The city leaders decided to build a hospital at the bottom of the hill, rather than straightening out the road to prevent accidents in the first place.

Sounds a bit like what the Prison Relocation Commission is doing now. Once the Legislature decided to move the prison for private developers, even though there didn’t seem to be a compelling state reason, Rep. Greg Hughes passed a bill to do so. There was no real effort to involve the public, no current studies, no mention about cost or where to relocate the prison; lawmakers charged forward.

It was only when the public became aware of the potential costs and possible relocation sites and when people living in those communities began speaking out — one even budgeted for costs to fight its own government — that commission members started listening. However, like the little town, their solution remains to move the prison for private developers. Now, the commission is trying to make the case to move the prison because of the need for “state of the art” facilities for treatment, education and training for the 90 percent of prisoners leaving the prison, and the 3,000 new prison beds that will be needed in the next 20 years — little-town thinking.

Instead of thinking they have to build a new prison and spend our tax dollars, how about downsizing the need for prisons — prevention; otherwise it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Private businesses downsize, innovate or go out of business. It’s the Legislature that passes laws about what is a crime that decides who should go to prison.

As a social worker and former probation officer, I saw where offenders getting an education and a job did more to build self-esteem than years of treatment. Too often, therapy for offenders is overrated and oversold by the professionals. Therapy works for us neurotics who are anxious enough to wait to talk to a therapist. Convicted felons probably have been diagnosed and treated since going through the juvenile court system; yet judges keep listening to corrections folks who recommend another evaluation and treatment.

Stop building prisons at the bottom of the hill and think about how best to deter crime and protect society. Prisoners may get job training in prison, but employers are reluctant to hire ex-felons. Parole agents, primarily trained to be cops, are too overworked to help them find jobs. What about making parolees responsible for their own rehabilitation by giving them vouchers to find it in the community?

And what if parole agents worked for the board of pardons to reduce recidivism, and probation officers worked for the courts responsible for carrying out court orders? Then there would be accountability for outcomes; lawbreakers would be deterred from entering the correctional system, and tax dollars would be put to better use. Just remember, don’t look for answers from professionals inside the system who only know about building a bigger industry.

Maybe if legislators and the governor could be on the same page, we wouldn’t have to move the prison; we could save money and not have to raise gas taxes on taxpayers. They were elected to promote the public good and listen to the public. But then again that takes leaders who are secure enough to say when they are wrong. Stop little-town thinking.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. Email: [email protected]