SALT LAKE CITY — “It’s hard to find hope in a hopeless place.”
Those were Salt Lake City resident Damian Trujillo’s words as he began to share his story of entanglement with the Utah corrections system.
More than 100 people listened to Trujillo as they gathered Tuesday on the steps of the Utah Capitol in support of legislation to reform the way the state’s criminal justice system handles people with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
Trujillo said he went to the Utah State Prison at 19 years old, and he spent the next 10 years in and out of prison and jail, struggling with substance abuse.
“I kept getting incarcerated instead of getting help,” he said.
But when a probation officer “decided to step outside of the box” and send Trujillo to treatment rather than back to prison, Trujillo said, he was able to change his life.
Trujillo has been sober since 2008, he said, and he's now a substance abuse counselor.
“I’ve been able to give back to this community that I used to take from, and that happened because somebody decided to give me a chance,” he said.
Holly Moore noted the importance of remembering the families of inmates and how an improved criminal justice system could help those families.
At the rally, Moore recalled when a judge told her husband, who has been incarcerated at the Utah State Prison since 2013, that his children were his victims.
“I thought in my head, ‘They are not his victims, and I’m not going to let them become victims,’” she said. “I, as a mother, will do everything I can to keep my children from becoming victims. This world does not need more victims.”
Moore said lawmakers need to create a criminal justice system that does not simply imprison but helps those with substance abuse problems or mental illness.
“That is what the Legislature needs to do," she said. "They need to look not only for those who are healthy and strong and safe, but (also) those who are broken.”
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, is sponsoring legislation for criminal justice reform, calling it an “entirely new, epic shift in how we manage corrections.”
Hutchings’ bill, which has not yet been made public, would implement a new assessment process for the causes of a person's criminal behavior and increase funding for treatment programs for those who are mentally ill or are battling addiction, he said.
The bill would also reduce penalties for drug possession so people addicted to drugs can get treatment without being branded as a drug felon for life, Hutchings said.
“The problem is a felony is very hard to get past,” he said. “Once you’ve got a felony on your record, almost nobody will hire you, it's very hard to find a place to live, and then we’re stunned and amazed when people act like criminals when we don’t give them a chance to act any other way.”
The bill, which Hutchings said should be available to the public within the next two days, was drafted using recommendations from the Commission of Criminal and Juvenile Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts public safety performance project, a study aimed at slowing the growth of Utah’s prison population and reducing recidivism.
Hutchings said the discussion about moving the Utah State Prison sparked his legislation for criminal justice reform. The expected $450 million cost of building a new prison has provided perspective for the nearly $30 million requested as part of his bill.
“Without the conversation about the prison move, it would have been an impossible sell,” Hutchings said.
Gov. Gary Herbert has already budgeted $10.5 million for recidivism reform.
Hutchings said his legislation is supported by data that demonstrates positive recidivism influences and the examples of other states that have already reformed their criminal justice systems.
“The problem is right now we know for a fact that our communities are not safer the way we’re doing it,” Hutchings said. “We will provide a better system and safer communities. Other states have done it. It’s Utah’s time. We’re ready. This is the moment for us.”
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