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Addicted to cocaine, methamphetamine and alcohol, Damian Trujillo received his first prison sentence in 1998 when he was 19. He spent the next decade in and out of the Corrections system, never being able to kick his habits.
It took a probation officer's mercy to change his life and end his criminal behavior. That officer could have sent Trujillo to prison again, but instead got him into drug treatment. Trujillo recounted his story on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, surrounded by at least 120 others who are supporting legislation to reform how the mentally ill and drug addicted are handled in the Corrections system.
"I've been able to accomplish those things that I used to wish about doing while I was in prison. My Mom and Dad are proud of me. I have the support of the community. I'm a college student. I'm a substance-abuse counselor," Trujillo said. "I've been able to give back to this community that I used to take from. And it happened because someone decided to give me a chance. I think all of us deserve that chance."
It's a message that's being embraced by Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, the Prison Relocation Commission and the Department of Corrections. Hutchings is preparing legislation that, in tandem with a plan to move the prison, would seek to reduce recidivism and lower the prison population.
"I'm very excited to be running what I think is going to be an entirely new, epic shift in how we manage corrections," Hutchings said at the pro-reform rally.
The bill, which has yet to be publicly released, would create a process to assess the causes underlying convicted individuals' criminal acts and funnel those who need it into enhanced treatment programs. The most controversial part of the legislation involves a plan to drop drug-possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.
County prosecutors are fighting that section, arguing that it reduces their ability to plea bargain and could shift people out of the state system where there are more drug and mental-health resources.
Supporters of the bill say prison beds shouldn't be taken up by people whose only crime is taking a drug.
"This legislation that we are having this year is a humane treatment for people with health issues that are drug-addiction related," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.
Tuesday's rally was organized by the ACLU of Utah and a host of other reform advocacy groups, such as Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness and the Disability Law Center. Among the speakers was Virginia Ward, a former Salt Lake City justice-court judge who was convicted in 2013 of possession of Oxycodone with the intent to distribute.
Ward told how her husband's death drove her deeper into addiction.
"I'm glad I was arrested because had I not been, I couldn't be there for my kids," she said. "I could not get better."
Ward said she was lucky to be in the middle class, where she still had her home and job opportunities. She argued that the Legislature should help those in similar situations with fewer resources.
"When we invest in people we get a better result," she said.
The rally came the day after leaders of the Department of Corrections detailed their budget requests to an appropriations committee. They want $6.5 million in funding for "reinvestment" programs, much of that for expanded treatment both in and outside of the prison. Those programs stem from the same recommendations created by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice that Hutchings is relying on for his legislation.
"We're all in" on prison reform, said Rollin Cook, director of the Department of Corrections, who agreed with advocates that too many people are imprisoned for crimes associated with addiction or mental illness.
The Prison Relocation Commission is tying such corrections reforms to the construction of a new prison. The commission supports Hutchings' efforts. It will also back legislation to fund a prison relocation, though it is not expected to pick a site this session.