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As a young attorney in northern California, David Olsen visited clients at the San Quentin State Prison.

These prisoners were criminals, he thought, people society had cast out for the things they'd done.

He would look at them in their uniforms, being ushered about by armed guards, and assume he knew who and what they were: Bad people guilty of crimes he, a young professional, would never commit.

On Thursday, Olsen told a room full of Utah citizens, politicians and public officials after years of battling a narcotics addiction and a three-year stint at the Utah State Prison, he has changed his mind.

Prisons don't exclusively house bad people, he said, they house people who made a mistake or lost their struggle with mental illness or addiction, people who need to be helped more than they need to be punished.

"When I looked around at the Utah State Prison, I saw it for what it was: the mental health and drug abuse-treatment system for America," Olsen said. "I hope the governor is serious about wanting to see that change. I hope he really is."

Olsen was one of 28 people who spoke Thursday at the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice's open forum, at which state officials were soliciting public opinion on how to improve the state's criminal justice policy and better serve its citizens.

The forums were organized in response to a charge from Gov. Gary Herbert, who announced in his state of the state address that he wanted "a full review of our current system to develop a plan to reduce recidivism, maximize offenders' success in becoming law-abiding citizens and provide judges with the tools they need to accomplish these goals."

"The prison gates through which people re-enter society must be a permanent exit," Herbert said. "Not just a revolving door."

Several members of the public who spoke addressed the complications of incarceration without treatment for addicts or the mentally ill.

Jan Lovett tearfully relayed the tale of her daughter's experience in the Weber County jail.

Since the woman's incarceration on drug charges, her mother said, she has struggled to manage her addictions and a chronic disease that led her to drugs in the first place. The windows in her cell are obscured so she can no longer see outside. Visits with family members are difficult and phone calls expensive.

"It's very hard for a family of a prisoner in the criminal justice system," Lovett said. "We are also victims."

Ron Gordon, the executive director of the commission, led Thursday's meeting, which was the second forum this week, and was planning to attend the final forum in Logan on Friday afternoon.

He said the honesty and candor with which citizens tell their stories is important for him, and other members of the commission, to hear.

"Often when we have these conversations about policy decisions or what changes need to be made, we hear a lot from people who work in the criminal justice system," Gordon said. "It gives you a totally different perspective to hear from the people on the other side."

Several speakers touched on the challenges long-time inmates face when re-entering society.

Molly Prince, a clinical social worker who has worked with parolees and probationers, said effective work training and education with a focus on technological literacy is a must in preparing prisoners to re-enter the community.

Other attendees raised issues such as victim's rights, the impact the criminal justice system has on the families of prisoners, the disparity between services provided at the state's jails and its prisons, time spent in jail awaiting case resolution, the intersection between the justice system and public health and sentencing guidelines.

Several speakers criticized Utah's system of indeterminate sentencing — judges often can only offer indeterminate guidelines to the Board of Pardons, such as a sentence of five to 15 years, but cannot specify a concrete penalty.

Prisoners, several presenters said, are thereby held behind bars longer than necessary in a system designed to punish rather than rehabilitate.

"We must refine good programs and policies already in operation to continue to get a good return on our investment," said Shawn McMillen, the director of First Step House. "The criminal justice system can save lives. … But we cannot continue to incarcerate our way out of other societal problems."

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae —

One more hearing set for Friday

The final Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice hearing for public comment will be held Friday at the Cache County Council Chambers in Logan (199 N. Main St.) beginning at 1 p.m.