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On Thursday, judges in Utah state courts began handing down sentences in some drug cases that include less prison time than before and more treatment as a way to keep offenders on the straight-and-narrow.
The new sentencing scheme is one of the sweeping changes mandated by HB348, or the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which was approved this year by the Utah Legislature. The initiative which includes opportunities for parolees and probationers to significantly reduce their time on supervised release is designed to help non-violent offenders become law-abiding members of their communities and to reserve prison beds for violent criminals.
But what about the non-violent offenders who were sentenced before the effective date of Oct. 1? Did a defendant who appeared for sentencing on Wednesday get a raw deal compared to one who was in court on Thursday? And did inmates who got out of prison a few months ago and followed all release conditions miss out on a chance to reduce their time on parole?
Ron Gordon, executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), doesn't think so.
"All of these concepts are not entirely new," Gordon said at a news conference on Tuesday. "Having the Board of Pardons and Parole, for example, review progress of a particular inmate and decide whether that person can be safely released earlier than an originally established parole date, that's not brand new. That's something that takes place right now."
Angela Micklos, chair of the parole board, backed him up. She pointed out that board members have been cutting time off of sentences since at least 2009 to inmates who meet the conditions of their case plan as a way to reward good behavior.
In some cases, the board would cut three months or six months off a prison term for inmates who completed an education or substance abuse program, Micklos said. Under the initiative, the board now is required to grant a reduction of at least four months when prisoners successfully complete a priority in their case plan.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is based on recommendations by the CCJJ, which began researching ways to reduce recidivism and promote public safety, as well as control spending on prisons, in early 2014. The Utah Legislature approved the initiative in the spring and it was signed into law on March 31 by Gov. Gary Herbert.
The initiative downgrades all first- and second-degree felony drug-possession crimes to misdemeanors and turns 241 misdemeanor crimes into infractions. The reforms also narrow drug-free zones from 1,000 feet to 100 feet of a school, church and other specified locations; limit automatic sentence increases to activities involving the sale and distribution of drugs, but not drug possession; and enhance substance abuse and mental health treatment options.
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, the commission says. Utah state prisons currently have custody of nearly 6,700 inmates.
Clayton Simms, a Salt Lake City defense attorney, thinks there's already been a cultural shift in favor of getting treatment for defendants.
"People don't have a burglary problem or a forgery problem," Simms said. "They have a drug problem that leads them to commit crimes."
The reforms are changing plea negotiations, Simms added, because a defendant who believes he is innocent will be more willing to go to trial on a misdemeanor charge than on a felony charge.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who is a member of the CCJJ, said prosecutors knew the changes were coming and have tried to be as equitable as possible.
Pointing out that Utah's prison population has been increasing the number of inmates in Utah grew 18 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided technical assistance in the development of the initiative Gill said it is important that the state continue funding the reforms.
"It's long overdue and a step in the right direction," he said of the package of reforms.