Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant has it right: “Putting offenders who previously would have gone to jail or prison into the community, without treatment, will almost certainly increase crime. ... The reform initiative not only makes substantive changes to criminal law, but requires a significant cultural change, which might be the bigger challenge.”
Lawmakers are to be commended for redesigning the state’s criminal justice system, which had become a disjointed set of subsystems with no accountability and compromised the protection of citizens.
Changing the culture in criminal justice is the most important and most challenging task. It starts with leaders who change laws, such as ours have done. They have taken on the challenge of dealing with what has always created tension in corrections — a balance between punishment and rehabilitation. That’s what they have done with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, passed last year. It made significant changes in the management of convicted criminal offenders. The expectation is that the initiative will reduce incarceration and recidivism rates by allowing more low-risk offenders, such as those with substance-abuse problems and mental illness, to be treated in the community.
However, in their rush to implement the JRI in a short time, lawmakers seem to have created the type of problems Durrant addressed so well.
The initiative also did nothing to correct the system’s structural problems. Currently, the Board of Pardons has the responsibility for setting conditions for felons in prison and for parole, yet it has no authority to enforce its decisions; it must depend upon the Department of Corrections to carry out the orders. The new law compounds the problem by requiring a complex and confusing “matrix” that must be followed by judges, Board of Pardons and Corrections to determine how best to help convicted felons receive the “treatment” that will help them succeed in the community. It makes the Rubik’s Cube look simple.
While JRI requires Corrections and the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to work together to provide services in the treatment of drug abuse and mental illness, there is nothing in the law to determine who is responsible to assure such coordination. Coordination is a myth unless someone has the authority to make it happen.
Furthermore, lawmakers seem to have been led by professionals to believe that therapy is a panacea that turns criminals into law-abiding citizens. Therapy may work for people who struggle with their emotions and are able to verbalize them with a therapist. Many convicted felons have had a history of psychological evaluations and treatment since entering the juvenile justice system. Among the best ways to help felons build self-esteem is with education and a job, yet that does not appear to be part of the matrix that judges, Corrections and Board of Pardons are to follow.
While legislators have demonstrated bold leadership in creating the JRI, they must allow administrators the time and resources to first retool the applicable agencies with a new culture before rolling it out. For years, it seems correctional officers, including probation and parole, have been trained to be law enforcement officers with little or no emphasis on training in how to assist offenders in learning new skills and resources to help them succeed. The Department of Corrections has made significant steps in carrying out the JRI components in a short time. Unless there is training of staff in embracing the JRI values, the initiative will fail.
Most important, it will require that administrators coordinate and monitor what takes place to make sure legislative intent is carried out. The greatest challenge will be the retraining of staff so they embrace the new culture of helping offenders succeed while protecting society.
Utahn John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His Bush 41 White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. [email protected]