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In 2015, Utah legislators passed and Governor Gary Hulburt signed into law a package, HB 348, to reform its state criminal justice system. This package included new concepts such as prioritizing prison space for people with serious and violent offenses as well as strengthening community supervision, both of which have yielded substantial public safety returns.
Since passing the law, Utah has reaped the benefits of common sense criminal justice legislation. The state’s prison population has declined by nine percent. Crime rates have fallen as well. As the overall incarcerated population fell, the share of the population convicted of harming the public’s safety rose from 60 to 68 percent, indicating that limited resources are being used more properly.
Prisoners convicted of simple drug possession are now only two percent of Utah’s prison population, down from 5 percent . New programs have diverted more low-level drug offenders to community based treatments, keeping them connected to their families and support networks. This is proven to be effective in solving the underlying addiction problem that lengthy prison sentences do nothing to alleviate.
Since Utah’s reform package included an alternative to incarceration, the state reinvested more than $35 million in treatment and evidence-based alternatives by the end of 2017, increasing taxpayer savings. It is also expected to redirect about $14 million into evidence-based strategies to reduce recidivism, or likelihood of reoffense, reconviction, or reincarceration after release from prison. These recidivism-reducing programs save taxpayer dollars and enhance public safety simultaneously.
As Gov. Herbert said in 2015 , “This package will enhance public safety and put the brakes on the revolving prison door. HB 348 will establish better treatment resources and alternatives for nonviolent offenders, ensuring our citizens get the best possible return on their tax dollars.” Three years later, this has been proven true.
Before the reform, Utah’s prison population rose dramatically by 19 percent from 2004 to 2013. Without implementing reform measures, Utah’s prison population would still be on the road to grow tremendously. Not only has this reform package prevented growth, but it has actually shrunk the prison population. In doing so, it has already begun to save taxpayers money and is expected to save more than $500 million over 20 years.
Utah, a traditionally conservative state, has chosen to make critical changes to its criminal justice system that refocus resources on offenders who threaten society, while providing opportunities for rehabilitation to those who do not. In doing so, Utah follows in the footsteps of the states that have led on these issues, including Texas and Georgia.
As a result, Utahans have reaped the same benefits of saved taxpayer dollars, less crime, and returning citizens who contribute to society. Approximately two-thirds of states across the country have now implemented such reforms. The remaining states -- and the federal government -- should do the same.