By Will Glade
Capital West News
SALT LAKE CITY — A protest, sponsored by the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, was held on Capitol Hill on Feb. 10 advocating reform and rehabilitation as an alternative to incarcerating offenders, particularly in drug and addiction related cases.
The protesters were calling on lawmakers to overhaul the current criminal justice system and therein help those struggling with addictions get the help they need rather than sending them to prison.
Current policy prevents many addicts from receiving help to rehabilitate and become law-abiding citizens, protesters maintained. “It is hard to find hope in a hopeless place. I couldn’t find hope in prison,” said Damian Trujillo, himself a former addict who has struggled with staying out of prison.
Trujillo was arrested at age 19 for drug related offenses and spent the next ten years in and out of prison for drug-related crimes. According to Trujillo, it wasn’t until 2008 — when in a hearing he was sent to rehab instead of prison — that he was able to change his life and get out of the destructive cycle he was stuck in.
Trujillo is now a college student and works as a substance abuse counselor.
“This is the first time in the 14 years since I have been an elected official that this has been up for discussion,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns. “This will be an epic shift in how we deal with prisoners.”
Hutchings has promised to sponsor legislation this session that will help those with addictions or mental health issues get needed help rather than be prosecuted and sent to prison.
Protestors assert that current policy prevents addicted or otherwise compromised offenders from receiving necessary help to rehabilitate and become law-abiding, contributing community members.
For Holly Moore, an advocate for these reforms and the wife of a convict, this issue impacts her daily. Moore’s husband was convicted of a crime and has been in prison for several years.
“[Inmates] are people too,” Moore said. “An inmate is not a sole person; it is a wife, a mother, a grandmother and it affects more than just the inmate in the prison.”
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, also spoke in support for reform. “We treat people as criminals for an addiction when we don’t hold people with health issues as criminals. Behavior is deeper and more complex than just locking [people] up in prison,” he said.
While no bill has been filed yet, Hutchings has various bill files open which he intends to submit later this session. “States have been reforming around the country. A lot of people have mental health problems and they need help,” he said.