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Changes in the way Utah punishes drug offenders have contributed to a significant drop in the number of people locked up in the state.

Officials projected that the prison population through the first six months of the year was on pace to reach 7,498 before lawmakers passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2014, designed to put more drug offenders into treatment and fewer into cells.

With the change, the prison population was expected to be held down to 6,674 over the period of time, but today stands at 6,371 — 15 percent below the projections before the reforms passed and 4.5 percent below what was expected after.

The number of drug-possession offenses has increased since the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI, was enacted, but now the crime is considered a Class A misdemeanor rather than a felony, meaning more offenders are getting steered into treatment programs rather than put in prison.

Where 18 percent of those charged with drug possession would have been sentenced to prison before JRI, that number now stands at about 7 percent. As a result, the number of nonviolent inmates in Utah's prisons has fallen by 600.

Sofia Nystrom, with the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said it's still too early to determine if the offenders who get treatment end up back in the system. Officials will be tracking that data in the future.

But the new approach to handling drug crimes raised some questions from legislators Tuesday, about whether the state had moved too far and was being too lenient on drug crime.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said he supports not branding offenders with a felony conviction on their record, which makes it difficult to find work or housing, but he's not sure that not locking offenders up for a period of time is in the best interest of the convicted individuals.

"They're kind of laughing at the police, because they're getting these misdemeanor citations," Briscoe said, based on his discussions with city officials and police in his district. "I don't think we should give them felony citations, but I hope our evaluation includes another look [at the sentencing]."

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said that, he heard from a criminal defense attorney that some offenders would choose to spend a weekend in jail for their Class A misdemeanor rather than enroll in an 18-month rehabilitation program.

And House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he has heard from local officials who are concerned that, with the state not locking people up, the locals are left doing more.

"They're worried we haven't attacked the problem, but changed the jurisdiction that would be dealing with it," he said. Hughes said the state needs to make sure all of the stakeholders understand "the good work" being done and the goal of the program.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said he believes "the concept is sound. Now we need to make sure we get the implementation correct." Twitter: @RobertGehrke