HB 348: Landmark penalty reductions for criminals

By Haley Sotelo

Capital West News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the midst of prison relocation talks, the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee gathered in a Feb. 27 meeting to discuss the reduction of sentences for nonviolent criminals.

The bill seeks to reduce recidivism and encourage rehabilitation of paroled offenders. Although the bill was influenced by similar bills in other states, it uses Utah data to assess the needs of the state’s inmates during and after incarceration. The data suggests that a previous decision to lengthen incarceration times and enhance penalties has failed to produce hoped for improvements.

Utah State Prison-Department of Corrections

Utah State Prison-Department of Corrections

“For the longest time, it was believed that when people broke the law it was an attitude problem. People had a bad attitude and if we were just hard enough on them and made life ugly enough and miserable enough that everything would change and they’d get back on track,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, about why incarceration times were previously extended.

For a certain amount of the population that works. There are those that the system really does have to be tough with―those who are “truly criminal-minded; who just love being bad guys,” Hutchings said.  They need “tall walls and lots of fences.”

The focal point of the bill is that it should be different for those with substance abuse and mental health problems.

“People do goofy, weird, disgusting stuff and they deserve to have a very large hammer. Some don’t and that’s where we’re going,” Hutchings said. The bill includes penalty reductions for those who haven’t really hurt anyone, he said, adding that it focuses on the supervision that the incarcerated individual would receive upon release. “The penalty is not the answer; the process is the answer.”

According to Ron Gordon, Executive Director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, keeping people in prison longer actually reduces public safety. This bill aims to ensure that those who are not violent aren’t kept in prison longer than they absolutely need to be and that they get the help they need, he said.

“We need treatment resources for this effort to work,” said Rick Schwermer, assistant state court administrator. Schwermer added that the bill would assess risks, needs, and responsiveness to treatment and supervision in an effort to improve the efficacy of the criminal justice system.

The committee voted unanimously to favorably recommend the bill for consideration by the full House.

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