SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of experts on prison reform from Texas made the case Thursday for efforts underway to make sweeping changes in Utah's criminal justice system at the same time a new site is being sought for the Utah State Prison.
That's the best way to control prison populations and taxpayer costs, Jerry Madden, a former Texas state representative, said during a panel discussion on prison reform and public safety at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
"In Texas, there were only two choices you could do if you're not going to build new prisons. One, you open the door and let people leave early," he said. "Or two, you have to figure out a way to slow down people coming in."
Madden said Texas chose the latter and closed three prisons instead of building more by enacting some of the same types of reforms recommended last November by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
The Utah recommendations, prepared with the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts public safety performance project, include making drug possession a misdemeanor, strengthening probation and parole supervision, and expanding treatment programs.
"You don't have to reinvent the wheel when you do this stuff," Madden said.
The overhaul of the Texas system that he oversaw as a lawmaker focused, he said, on breaking the cycle of incarceration.
The clearest indicator someone is headed for prison is having a father or a mother who's been behind bars, Madden said, and the drug, alcohol and mental health issues that often result are also major contributors to recidivism.
Early childhood intervention is the best and cheapest method for keeping people out of prison, said Madden, a senior fellow at Right on Crime, a conservative public policy foundation in Texas.
Marc Levin, Right on Crime public policy director, said what's being called justice reinvestment is about more than saving tax dollars.
"Ultimately, I think the vast majority of folks would say let's reserve prisons for those people we're afraid of, not those we're mad at, and recognize the fact that people can actually get worse in prison," Levin said.
He said while people are going to prison because they've done something wrong, there's a need "to make sure we're holding them accountable in a way that's actually good for the rest of us."
Levin said Utah is "on a great trajectory" to deal with a recidivism rate of 46 percent within three years through the recommendations that will go before the 2015 Legislature that begins meeting Jan. 26.
Another member of the panel, Utah Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said there is momentum to look at reforming the system despite the $20 million price tag because of the pending prison move.
The Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission is not expected to meet again until after the Jan. 31 deadline for submitting potential sites. So far, all of the communities on the commission's shortlist oppose a new prison.
But House Majority Assistant Whip-elect Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the co-chairman of the relocation commission, told the largely student audience that the prison move makes economic sense.
"It's a big decision for the state," Wilson said, noting the discussion of the move has now gone beyond dollars and cents to look at ways to improve the corrections system.
He said the aging prison at Point of the Mountain is "falling apart" and would cost $250 million to repair, while the nearly 700-acre site could be sold to developers for as much as $150 million.
The cost of a new prison, Wilson said, is now between $500 million and $525 million. Besides construction jobs, redeveloping the Draper site is expected to generate $2 billion annually in economic activity and $100 million in taxes, he said.
"It's absolutely a no-brainer to make this move," Wilson said.
It is not clear whether the relocation commission will be ready to make a site recommendation this session. The sites currently in the running for the project are in Eagle Mountain, near Grantsville and near Salt Lake City International Airport.
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