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A proposal before the Legislature would provide funding to expand a program that offers defendants an opportunity to receive two-year vocational training at community technical colleges.

A judicial reform campaign over the past few years to reduce recidivism among low-level criminal offenders in Utah may soon be bolstered in a significant way by a measure that would expand an innovative pilot program in Cache County to offer vocational training to defendants in lieu of incarceration.

A proposal before the Legislature would provide funding to expand a program offering defendants an opportunity to receive two-year vocational training at community technical colleges. The program would more than pay for itself by eliminating the need to pay the costs of incarceration and supervision by probation and parole officers. The concept has much going for it in the way of a compassionate and fiscally sound approach to dealing with a large population of offenders in the system — incarcerated in many cases for drug-related crimes — and should be met with legislative approval.

The measure, HB106, arises from the success of a small pilot program put into effect last summer called Cache Achieve. It allows low-level offenders a chance at completing job training at the Bridger Technical College instead of serving jail time. Of the 13 initial enrollees, three have already completed the course and other requirements. One participant received training in home health care and is now “making a living wage and doing well,” according to the Cache County attorney’s office.

Offering people engaged in ongoing criminal behavior a chance to turn their lives around and become productive members of society, instead of a burden on a community, is an optimal objective of an effective justice system. An ongoing campaign of judicial reform was prompted by the untenable confluence of increasing rates of drug prosecutions and the implementation of minimum-mandatory sentencing laws that has led to clogged courts and overburdened correctional facilities. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed in 2015 decriminalized some drug offenses and paved the way for defendants to pursue court-monitored rehabilitation programs instead of going to jail or prison.

While the proposed vocational training law would formalize funding and procedural mechanisms for court defendants to enroll in community colleges, it would not be the first effort in Utah to offer assistance to those struggling to escape a cycle of contact with the justice system. For more than a year, The Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City has been helping defendants referred through the courts to undergo life skills and job training. The academy is run by a nonprofit group inspired by the work of the Delancey Street Foundation, based in San Francisco and which has graduated more than 20,000 participants over the last 45 years.

As the Legislature considers HB106 and other similar proposals, we caution lawmakers to not burden groups like Cache Achieve and The Other Side Academy with onerous regulations or undue oversight that would inhibit the effectiveness of their programs.

4 comments on this story

Statutory reforms for both public and private entities in Utah focused on reducing recidivism and jail crowding represent a significant policy change. Early results are promising, but it will take time to determine if they are successful in long-term reductions of jail populations without a negative impact on public safety. Approval of HB106, and clearing the way for private programs to expand, would represent a sound continuation of a policy that promises to benefit the state as well as the individuals who take advantage of the programs on their way to a stable and productive life.