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Supporters of moving Utah's prison out of Draper hope the state Legislature will answer two questions in the coming weeks: How to fund a new prison and how to slow the growth in the inmate population.
These are touchy debates that are expected to result in fights over whether to move the prison at all and whether drug possession should be a felony or a misdemeanor.
What lawmakers won't be asked to do is sign off on where a new penitentiary should be built. That detailed and controversial chore is likely to drag on past the legislative session and well into the summer. Still, the shortlist of new sites could get a shakeup as early as next week.
The Prison Relocation Commission, which is comprised of state lawmakers, set a Jan. 31 deadline to identify new parcels, outside of three locations already under serious consideration. Those three include land west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, next to the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele County and south of the fast-growing city of Eagle Mountain in Utah County.
While commission leaders, such as Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, say each of these plots is suitable, House Speaker Greg Hughes isn't enthusiastic about the options.
"I am hoping that some other sites come up, I really do," said Hughes, who represents Draper and only recently resigned as a member of the commission. He said it would be better for the Legislature to narrow the list to one plot of land, because it would reduce the protests from residents who don't want a prison moving to their area.
"The only reason I'm hesitant is, frankly, I don't think we have the right site," said Hughes, who wants to find land that would be more remote and yet within a reasonable drive from the metro area.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who with Wilson leads the commission, said consultants are looking into land west of the Eagle Mountain site and are giving a spot near Grantsville, in Tooele County, a second look. The panel will get together Feb. 6 and likely decide if the shortlist should be expanded.
The money • While this site-selection effort inches forward, lawmakers will focus on creating a plan to fund an eventual prison move, which has an estimated price tag of about $500 million. Gov. Gary Herbert's budget called for $45 million to start the project. Legislative leaders plan to set aside some cash from the state's surplus, which is more than $600 million this year, and then borrow for the rest through a series of bonds.
That discussion is likely to act as a proxy debate over whether the prison should move at all. Community activists in Eagle Mountain, Tooele County and Salt Lake City have argued the prison should be rebuilt at its current site at half the cost. Herbert, Hughes and most lawmakers want it moved to use the land in Draper along Interstate 15 for a new business park and other economic development, which they say could result in $95 million in new state and local tax revenue each year. Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, has two bills meant to give lawmakers a chance to reverse course and rebuild the prison in Draper, a move he is making to show just how frustrated he is about the potential site near the motorsports park.
Reducing recidivism • The commission's plan is to build a new prison that would be the same size as the current one, about 4,000 beds. The only way to make that work is if the state finds a way to dramatically curtail growth in the prison population and lower the state's higher-than-average recidivism rate. To that end, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, will sponsor a bill based on ideas offered by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
Hutchings' legislation, which is still in the works, is expected to include new probation penalties and incentives meant to encourage offenders to comply to reduce the time they are monitored, more funding for drug and mental-health treatment and a streamlined screening to determine the underlying causes of a person's criminal activity before he or she is sentenced.
The lawmaker expects little fighting among his colleagues over those items, but Utah's law-enforcement community and prosecutors are not happy about his plan to reduce drug-possession charges from a third-degree felony to a class A misdemeanor.
"We think it is going to have some negative ramifications," said Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.
He worries reducing these charges and sentences could put an extra burden on county jails, undercut existing drug courts and tax overloaded probation officers. Without significant increases in drug treatment and supervision, Carpenter warned, these offenders would likely continue to commit other crimes, such as burglaries and thefts, to pay for their drug habits, eventually ending with a felony charge anyway.
"If they are not supported on the misdemeanor level and they are continuing to reoffend then we are right back to the same problem again," he said.
State prosecutors have also complained that the sentencing reduction would make it harder to get defendants to take a plea deal, and could burden county jails.
"We are in favor of increased resources and we are also in favor of effective treatment," said Mark Thomas, the Uintah County attorney who leads the Utah Prosecution Council. "But we are not in favor of crippling the criminal-justice system to save prison beds."
Hutchings believes that freeing prison beds for violent offenders is important and he believes his bill offers enough support for drug addicts.
"Recidivism goes up when we are heavy on incarceration and light on treatment," he said. "The focus is really shifting to 'how can we help these people reenter the community and not go back to prison again?' "
Hutchings is not yet sure how big the price tag on his bill will be, but he knows it won't be cheap. He's considering breaking off the drug-possession part as a separate bill.
"We need to get a lot of new resources in place, while still keeping up what we already have," Hutchings said. "But without it, the cost of the prison we would need to build would go up."
The commission will continue to tie the reforms to a new prison plan, but Stevenson worries there is only so much money to go around and that these ideas could become competitors as the session goes on.
"They both take a lot of upfront money," he said. "I think that is going to be a challenge as we go through it."