It’s been nearly two years since Utah enacted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative that lowered criminal penalties for many drug-related offenses in an effort to reduce incarceration rates and move more offenders into treatment programs. A new report shows the initiative is potentially having the intended effect on the prison population, but there are mixed results when it comes to more treatment for drug offenders.
A report by the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice says the prison population is down 11 percent since 2015, while the proportion of violent criminals behind bars is up to 68 percent from 60 percent. Those numbers are an indication the reinvestment initiative may indeed be producing the desired outcomes. The reduction in prison admissions is a stark reversal of contemporary trends. Between 2004 and 2014, the prison population grew by 18 percent. Though other factors may be in play, the justice reform measure certainly has been influential in disrupting a trend toward unsustainable rates of long-term incarceration.
That’s the good news. Although discussions regarding prison populations can easily descend into dehumanizing talk of numbers, behind each data point is a human being. Prisons are populated with convicted criminals, but they are nonetheless people who also yearn for rehabilitation, treatment and even redemption.
When it comes to whether the state’s initiative is translating into more treatment in lieu of incarceration, the data is somewhat muddy. On one hand, the commission’s report indicates that admissions to substance abuse treatment programs among defendants are up 21 percent. But rates of recidivism measured by parolees returning to prison are up 39 percent. That might suggest that defendants who were put on probation instead of prison for drug crimes are re-offending at a fairly high rate, perhaps because they were not involved in a treatment program, or the treatment failed.
Criminal justice leaders need to bore into the data to determine precisely what is happening. An unintended consequence of the 2015 reinvestment effort, similar to measures put in place by 25 other states, has been lower rates of referral to drug courts across the country. The drug court programs have been effective in steering abusers away from prison and toward rehabilitation. Admissions to drug court are typically limited to those charged with felony crimes. The reform initiative led to changes in statutes that rendered simple possession of most drugs a misdemeanor, as opposed to a felony, and those charged with the lower-level crimes were not necessarily on track for adjudication in drug court. But it’s unclear how society can simultaneously see reduced drug court admissions and an increase in admissions to substance-abuse-treatment programs. That’s something additional research will need to reconcile, which will be important in deciding how to guide the next steps.
The reinvestment program was an ambitious and necessary effort that may need adjustment as time goes on and as the results of its implementations become clearer. Funding to support rehabilitation programs has been tight, although they are helped by the increase in Medicaid funds dedicated to such treatment that are now coming to Utah as a result of a waiver granted by federal authorities.
In the midst of aggressive campaigns to address homelessness in Utah and an epidemic in opioid abuse, it’s important that the state remain vigilant in opening as many doors as possible for counseling and therapy and in understanding what the data suggest in order to improve policies.