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A committee tasked by lawmakers with determining the economic feasibility of relocating the Utah State Prison pulled an emergency brake Wednesday as it voted to withdraw requests for proposals for the project while it gathers more information about what the state's correctional system should look like in the future.
The Prison Relocation and Development Authority unanimously agreed to slow the process after hearing from the executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), who requested the bid solicitations be withdrawn, and from a consultant it has hired to assess current and future needs of the Utah Department of Corrections.
The decision also had support of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who had not signed off on three unofficial bid solicitations the committee posted nearly three weeks ago on the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management website. A timeline proposed by PRADA called for bids to be submitted by Dec. 2; it planned to forward a recommendation to the governor and Legislature by Jan. 31, four days after the start of the 2014 session.
PRADA Chairman Lane Summerhays said the committee will recommend to the 2014 Legislature that the state proceed immediately with an expansion of the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. But PRADA will not be prepared to make a recommendation on the future of the state's main prison facility until the 2015 legislative session.
That delay will give more time to MGT of America Inc., the Florida-based consulting firm hired by the committee two weeks ago, to figure out what kind of facility the state needs to best house and treat inmates. It also will allow a "companion" conversation to take place between CCJJ and the committee about how to reshape correctional programs and policies governing offenders.
Several committee members said that, contrary to a public perception that moving the prison is a foregone conclusion, no decision has been made about whether such a project makes sense economically or policy-wise.
CCJJ Director Ron Gordon, who met recently with Herbert about the commission's concerns, told the committee that numerous policy and program questions need to be addressed before the state undertakes such a massive project. Among the questions are how improvements in parole and probation supervision might affect the size of the future prison population, Gordon said.
Currently, a majority of those entering prison annually are offenders who are being returned for violating conditions of their release. CCJJ has partnered with The Pew Charitable Trusts to review and make recommendations for how to improve Utah's Adult Probation and Parole system to reduce recidivism.
The Utah Sentencing Commission is in the process of reviewing crime classifications, Gordon said, which also might impact future prison bed needs.
Gordon said other pieces of the puzzle that need to be thoroughly vetted include a better understanding of how the state's incarceration needs might be met through contracts with county jails and how treatment and programming from mental-health services to sex-offender treatment could be improved to better serve inmates and the community. Transitional services provided to offenders also need a serious review, he said.
"Please allow us the opportunity," Gordon said, "to take the next several months to create a criminal-justice system that will benefit us for the next 50 years."
Gordon said that a comprehensive assessment would likely not be completed before next June the same time frame a principal with MGT of America Inc. estimated will be needed to craft a final recommendation on the kind of facility the state needs.
However, both Gordon and Brad Sassatelli of MGT said some proposals to improve Utah's correctional system may emerge more quickly. Sassatelli said MGT would have a preliminary analysis of the system in hand by Jan. 1.
PRADA's decision to take a slower approach was hailed by community groups such as the Utah League of Women Voters and the Alliance for a Better Utah.
"We can't build our prison for the future if we don't know our prison policy for the future," said Eric Rumple, policy analyst for Alliance for a Better Utah.
While Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, joined in the unanimous vote, he cautioned committee members that he could not predict how his legislative colleagues might react to the decision to slow the process and expand the focus beyond the mandate given in March.
"I'm hopeful we aren't shooting ourselves in the foot," he said. "On the other hand, something of this magnitude needs to be thoughtful."
SB72, sponsored by Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, charged PRADA with assessing the feasibility of and seeking proposals to move the prison and redevelop the nearly 700 acres it has occupied in Draper since the 1950s.
PRADA drafted three requests for proposals: one to relocate the prison, a second to redevelop its current site and a third that would have done both projects. Jenkins said that while he was a "little" disappointed the project would move on a slower track, he had faith in the committee's careful approach.
"I'm respectful of the process and that they are doing what's right for the state," he said Wednesday. "That's what's important here that we do what's right for the state."