Bill overhauls criminal justice system
May 12, 2015
Local judiciary officials are trying to understand the implications of a bill that overhauls the criminal justice system in Utah and will place more responsibilities on counties to reduce recidivism.
The bill, HB 348, a response to Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2014 State of the State address in which he called for a comprehensive criminal justice reform, was the result of a collaborative effort by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) and Pew Charitable Trusts.
The bill’s goal is to reduce the prison population, specifically those who are incarcerated for drug offenses. At the same time, it emphasizes local responsibility and will require increased efforts by counties to provide services for people who become entangled in the criminal justice system.
"The idea is: counties are supposed to step up and do a lot more in terms of treatment and management of drug offenses," said Matt Bates, Summit County’s chief prosecutor. "It places a lot more responsibility on the county."
HB 348 changes the level of the offense for possession of controlled substances, such as marijuana, heroin and cocaine, and reduces the charge to a Class A misdemeanor whereas most offenses are currently third-degree felonies punishable by up to five years in jail. It also changes the way the law views marijuana possession. Charges used to be based on the amount.
According to the CCJJ’s 2014 Justice Reinvestment Report, Utah’s prison population has grown by 18 percent since 2004. At this rate, the report states the prison population will experience approximately 37 percent growth by 2034. Additionally, the report states a "significant number" of Utah’s inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
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"We’re going to start seeing a lot more people who come in with drug offense that would have been felonies," Bates said. "Now they are going to be misdemeanors and are now going to have to be supervised at the county level."
The problem, Bates said, is Summit County doesn’t have a "real good" probation program. There are some private probation providers, but nothing is offered at the county level in terms of housing or services.
"If we don’t have some probation provider to help them stay employed and keep stable housing, we will find ourselves with a county full of people with serious problems and no one is watching them," he said. "We are really going to push this year to try and get some kind of county probation service."
While the main provisions of the legislation will go into effect in October, Bates said most prosecutors are operating under the guise that it is already in effect.
"Most prosecutors, for first-time drug offenders, are offering plea bargains where they can and we already have a ton of people on Class A misdemeanors," Bates said. "That’s just kind of how we’ve always dealt with it."
Bates said he personally believes the changes are a step in the right direction to get offenders the help they really need.
"I think we have really gone the wrong direction in how we have been handling substance abuse," he said. "I don’t know that charging someone with a crime for possessing drugs has really done that much good for anyone, especially with felony convictions. It just wreaks havoc, costs a ton of money and wasted court time to put a ton of people in jail. What these people really need are counseling, support and encouragement."
Judge Shauna Kerr said she doesn’t anticipate the bill having much of an impact on "regular Summit County residents" since the people who generally appear in her court were caught with smaller amounts.
However, Summit County may be impacted more than other Justice Courts in the state because of the traffic on Interstate 80, Kerr said.
"It will probably manifest itself here first because the cases that happen on I-80 often have larger amounts," Kerr said. "That will present a challenge for sentencing for me. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this. It’s going to be different.
"I have to look at my judicial philosophy to see exactly how I choose to address this," she said. "It will increase our workload in the Justice Court, but to what extent I’m still not certain."
The bill also changes the penalties for several traffic violations, reducing the offense levels from Class C misdemeanors to infractions. A Class C misdemeanor can carry a sentence of up to 90 days in jail, but the drop in offense level will take jail time off the table.
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