The sponsor of a bill that would make drug possession a misdemeanor in Utah describes it as “an epic shift” in the criminal justice system, which is not an overstatement given the magnitude of change it would bring. The proposal carries a lot of upside as a more humane and fiscally responsible way to deal with a problem that hasn’t gone away after a generation-long war on drugs.
Attitudes are indeed shifting away from a posture of punishment toward one that favors treatment and rehabilitation. There is clear evidence that such an emphasis will reverse a trend that has brought a dramatic increase in the prison population with little beneficial effect in keeping drugs off our streets.
HB348, sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, is the result of extensive planning and analysis by the Utah Commission on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts. The law is similar to measures passed in other states, which have also been awakened to the negative aspects of get-tough policies — burdening the courts and prison systems with an untenable rate of recidivism.
The move would not constitute surrender in the drug war, but recognition it has been fought with the wrong weapons — or at least an arsenal too weighted toward the side of long-term detention. Treating addicts as people suffering under the yoke of a disease is far more humane than being disposed to simply lock them up and throw away the key. As Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook told the Deseret News, “For too long we have been the hand that holds them down. Now it’s time for us to collectively decide that we will be the hand that helps them overcome.”
The reform bill is well-crafted and well-thought-out. It requires state agencies to track the outcome of their various policy changes to assess their impact on recidivism and public safety. It provides mechanisms to carefully sift through those cases in which treatment is most likely to work, and it allows for better tracking of defendants through periods of probation and treatment.
The adjustment of priorities in the justice system, along with the exploration of what to do with the state prison, are efforts that will leave as significant of a mark on Utah’s future as any of the several weighty issues the Legislature is currently facing.