SALT LAKE CITY — The number of Utah criminals on parole or probation who are missing or unaccounted for has jumped sharply since 2014, a new study commissioned by the Utah Association of Counties finds.
In August 2014, just 7.5 percent of Utah’s parole and probation population were fugitives. This January, 12 percent were AWOL — a 60 percent jump.
The fugitive figures were presented to a group of county prosecutors in Heber City on Thursday as part of a larger crime study funded by the Utah Association of Counties and conducted by the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah. The Utah Department of Corrections has confirmed the fugitives data.
From January 2010 to September 2014, the number of fugitives on parole or probation averaged 1,138 per month. But starting in October 2014, the fugitive count shot sharply up, reaching a peak in January 2017 at just over 2,000 — a 76 percent increase.
During that same period, the total number of people on parole or probation also climbed — but only by a much smaller 11 percent, the study found.
The jump in the number of fugitives, both raw numbers and percentages, has implications for the state's high-profile Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which took effect in October 2015. Among other things, the initiative reclassified some drug offenses from third-degree felonies to misdemeanors with the goal of shifting emphasis from incarceration to behavioral treatment and reducing prison populations without compromising public safety.
Although the initiative took effect in October 2015, Department of Corrections officials confirmed that the state began shifting parole practices about a year earlier, in late 2014, lowering the number of the incarcerated and increasing numbers under parole supervision.
Sources in multiple county prosecutors' offices said they see the newly released data on fugitives as a leading indicator of the street-level impact of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which they say is pushing criminals downward through the penal system from prisons to county jails and into the parole and probation system — without adequate treatment or supervision.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said people released into the community without adequate supervision or treatment will naturally gravitate to old patterns.
"We have seen many individuals who were deemed low risk and released into the community who have committed multiple offenses while they are treading water waiting for treatment," Gill said.
Critics of the initiative have pointed to Corey Lee Henderson as a high profile example of criminals released early from prison who become fugitives and commit serious crimes.
In late 2015, Henderson qualified for early release under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and then became a fugitive after checking out of a halfway house for a job interview and never returning. Less than a month later, he murdered Unified police officer Doug Barney. Henderson was killed shortly afterward during an exchange of gunfire that also wounded Unified police officer Jon Richey.
State corrections officials have said the initiative had nothing to do with Henderson's release. That remains a disputed question. But critics, including parole agents and police officers, argue an overemphasis on early release and community supervision will lead to poor vetting and higher crime.
The increased number of fugitives is just one piece of a larger study, said Lincoln Shurtz, government affairs director for the Utah Association of Counties. Other results of the study are more reassuring, he said. "Property crime is actually flat," Shurtz said. "It depends on the county. Salt Lake County is a little different. But in the rest of the counties, it's flat if not down."
Gill argues that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative program just needs to be honed and properly funded.
Gill, like many others, points out that the premise of Utah's Justice Reinvestment Initiative was tied to an expected Medicaid expansion. When the initiative was being debated, Gov. Gary Herbert was pushing to expand Medicaid, which would have broadened access to treatment for many people involved in the justice system. That expansion never happened.
"Doing justice reform on the cheap is like taking three days of a 10-day round of antibiotics," Gill said. “If you cut corners, don’t expect to get well.”
It's hard to put an exact dollar figure on the impact of the failed Medicaid expansion on Utah's Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Ron Gordon, director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, estimates that after the most recent appropriations this spring, a $10 million funding gap for treatment remains stemming from the Medicaid failure.
On the other hand, he says the Legislature has given $10 million to $15 million more for drug treatment to the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health — money not directly tied to the initiative but that was an outgrowth of it.
Brent Kelsey, assistant director of the division, concurred that those numbers seem roughly accurate.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns and the chief House sponsor of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative bill in 2015, also agrees with those estimates, saying Utah now has $25 million for drug treatment available that was not there before the initiative.
Aside from funding, key questions center on the effectiveness of treatment. The initiative mandated that the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health create new standards and rigorous oversight for treatment. But county prosecutors and even some treatment providers say this isn't happening.
"This is the exact reason we have an implementation task force, to review these kinds of questions and data," said Gordon. The task force, he said, will quickly tackle the results of this study, along with related data.
Underlying the concerns of Utah's counties, Shurtz said, is a need for better and faster data on crime and its impact on communities. Too often, he argued, data is delayed by over a year, making rapid policy adjustments impossible.
The Utah Association of Counties is meeting next week with the governor's Office of Management and Budget, Shurtz said, to work on developing systems that will streamline data collection and dissemination, eventually populating databases available to the public in close to real time.
Shurtz says the association will organize data so that the impact of policies on individuals communities can be understood with more precision, with policies and funding adjusted accordingly. As a first cut in that direction, the association persuaded the Legislature this spring to appropriate $2 million to collect and analyze data to understand and improve the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
“This the kind of data we need,” Hutchings said of the new report presented on Thursday. “We need an informed conversation about just how complicated it is and what it will take for us to solve it.”