SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has set new standards for how long offenders should remain on probation and parole, giving them a chance to further cut down their supervision time if they meet certain benchmarks.
"These guidelines give offenders some solid goals to reach. And if they reach those goals, there's some expectation that they can have some control over the length of their probation or their parole," said Marshall Thompson, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission.
The policy, approved by the commission last week in a unanimous vote, provides a shot at early release to those who complete treatment, pose little risk to the public and meet other criteria. It takes effect in January, but does not apply to roughly 18,000 people already on probation and parole in the Beehive State.
The Utah Legislature earlier this year directed the panel to better tailor supervision after prison (parole) or instead of prison and jail time (probation) to a person's progress, part of a larger series of criminal justice reforms in the Beehive State. The Sentencing Commission includes judges, attorneys, lawmakers and others.
"We want to look at, what is an individual's risk or needs? Rather than directly, or solely, the offense they committed," said Dan Blanchard, adult probation and parole director at the Department of Corrections. "That allows us hopefully to put our resources more on those that need it."
The standards expand on an existing program that allows offenders to shrink their supervision terms by up to half if they follow terms imposed by a court or Utah's Board of Pardons and Parole, and follow a case action plan that could focus on job and education goals.
Under the new system, a person may get off even earlier if they complete any ordered treatment, show they pose less of a risk and are more stable — possibly by having a steady job or maintaining a good relationship with their family members — so long as they are complying terms of their supervision and don't have new criminal cases. Judges and Utah's Board of Pardons and Parole can still deny early release under the policy, but must explain why, and offenders can reapply.
"We’ve tried to make sure that the guidelines don’t radically change much right now, as far as the practical effect," Thompson said. Instead, the policy clarifies how long offenders can expect to stay on paper — giving those who are convicted, and also victims of their crimes, a solid idea of how long the state will supervise them, he said.
In the past, a "rat's nest" of Utah laws prevented those on parole and probation for some crimes from qualifying for early release, Thompson said. But once they hit a three-year time limit embedded in the state code, many offenders automatically timed out. The new guidelines give judges and the parole board more power to continue monitoring those deemed a public safety risk, Thompson said.
Mike Haddon, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections and a member of the commission, voted in favor of the standards but cautioned they could further tax already-overwhelmed probation and parole agents.
"We're moving from an automatic system to one that has a lot of discretion," he said last week. "If they serve longer periods of time, that could increase our caseloads."
Faye Jenkins, a representative of the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, urged the panel last week to extend the new standards to those already in the system. She said that when she told people she knows who are in prison about the new guidelines, they shed "tears of gratitude. It makes a huge difference, just giving them the hope."
Third District Judge Vernice Trease voted yes on the new standards, but noted there may be reasons not listed in the guidelines why a judge should not grant a person's release.
"There will be times that there has to be some discretion that may not fit perfectly with the things that we've outlined," she said.
Relying in part on research finding that too much supervision can raise the likelihood of a repeat offense, and that a person is most likely to reoffend within the first two years, the standards stipulate how long at most a person should remain supervised: Two years for a class A misdemeanor and four for a first-degree felony, for example. The lengths rise to 14 years for a murder, and 10 years for first-degree sexual an kidnapping crimes. That's as long as offenders don't violate their probation, pose a serious public safety risk or have a new criminal case.Comment on this story
Defense attorney Richard Mauro, a member of the commission, said he believes some of the supervision lengths are too long.
"In many ways, this is not perfect," he said. "I think this is a good compromise."
As part of the legislative reform earlier this year, lawmakers capped supervision terms to three years for misdemeanor crimes, and not longer than what would have been their full prison term for a felony conviction. After that, a person must go to prison if they pose enough of a risk, or be released, according to the guidelines.