Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Inmates fill out paperwork for a new temporary ID at the Utah State Prison Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Utah prison inmates could be released at least four months early for finishing programs state officials say are shown to help keep them from committing crimes after they get out.

DRAPER — Utah prison inmates could be released at least four months early for finishing programs state officials say are shown to help keep them from committing crimes after they get out.

The incentive is part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative that takes effect Thursday. State lawmakers approved sweeping changes to Utah's criminal justice system earlier this year.

Inmates sentenced on or after Oct. 1 will eligible for the time cuts if they complete programs proven to reduce recidivism, including education, vocational training, substance abuse treatment and sex offender treatment. They could earn another four months off their sentences for completing a second program.

"These reforms are not a softer approach to crime but a much smarter approach," said Rollin Cook, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections.

State corrections and justice officials expect the initiative to lower incarceration rates and keep offenders from returning to prison.

Inmates on death row or those who serving life sentences without parole aren't eligible for the time cuts.

In addition to the incentives, the corrections department is heightening its focus on helping inmates make a successful move from prison to the community using transition specialists and volunteer mentors.

Also, the initiative diverts more offenders such as those who commit drug or property crimes to community-based treatment, allowing them to stay connected with family and support networks.

The initiative also:

• Reduces penalties for certain drug crimes and revises guidelines for newly sentenced offenders.

• Allows credit for jail time served as a condition of probation or for a probation violation for new prison sentences.

• Creates incentives for parolees to potentially cut their time under supervision in half.

Ron Gordon, executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said the state doesn't need to spend $500 million on new prison beds for people who don't need to be incarcerated.

The initiative, which Gordon said relies on sound research and data, allows corrections officials to tailor supervision plans for inmates based on their individual needs.

"This is a fundamental shift for the criminal justice system," he said.

The law is not retroactive, meaning those already in prison won't be eligible.

But Angela Micklos, chairwoman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, said the state has granted time cuts since 2009 as a reward for inmates for "pro-social behavior" that reduces their risk of reoffending. Inmates received three months or six months off depending on how they did in the programs, she said.

"All of these concepts are not entirely new," Gordon said. "What this legislation does is formalize it. It establishes a very formal process that takes place and a very consistent process that takes place."

Cook said offenders for the first time are being "empowered and involved" in their own successful transition into community and rewarded for their efforts.

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