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Draper • Landmark changes in Utah's criminal-justice system will go into effect Thursday with the aim of reducing recidivism and slowing prison growth.

HB348, or the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, reduces sentences for certain drug crimes and diverts more offenders to community-based treatment so they can stay connected to their families and support networks.

These steps are expected to save taxpayers more than $500 million over the next two decades by avoiding the need to fund more prison beds, Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook said Tuesday at a news conference.

"These reforms are not a softer approach to crime, but a much smarter approach," Cook said. "They are practices that maintain public safety by ensuring violent high-risk offenders who are a threat to our communities are appropriately incarcerated."

If the state continues with a lock-'em-up approach, he added, the prison population would grow by 37 percent by 2034. About 6,700 inmates are in the custody of Utah prisons.

The initiative — which applies only to offenders who are sentenced on Thursday or after — downgrades all first- and second-degree drug-possession convictions from felonies to misdemeanors and turns 241 misdemeanors into citations.

The reforms also enhance substance abuse and mental health treatment options and provide opportunities for probationers and parolees to shorten their time on supervised release.

The changes:

• Give credit for jail time served as a condition of probation or for a violation of probation

• Give credit of 30 days for each month of successful compliance by inmates given three-year supervision terms, meaning their supervision times could be cut in half.

• Potentially reduce sentence time by at least four months for inmates who complete a priority in their case-action plan, and a minimum of an additional four months for completing a GED, vocational training, substance abuse treatment or other program.

HB348, which was approved earlier this year by the state Legislature, was based on policy recommendations by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Accompanying budget measures redirected nearly $14 million toward treatment programs and increased community supervision.

Ron Gordon, the commission's executive director, stressed that the changes are based on research that shows what types of interventions and programs were most likely to be successful.

"We have to make very good use of our scarce correctional resources," Gordon said.

The legislation has been described by its sponsor, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, as an "epic shift."

In a guest opinion piece in The Tribune last spring, Hutchings said two-thirds of those incarcerated in Utah in 2013 had served time and been released on probation or parole, and nearly half of those had not committed a new crime "but had simply failed to get their lives in order."

Twitter: PamelaMansonSLC

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