Utah's Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission unveiled a package of recommendations to control prison growth today, including a proposal to make first-time drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
According to the report, Utah’s prison population is projected to grow by 37 percent over the next two decades at a cost to taxpayers of more than half a billion dollars. Among the recommendations is a proposal to make drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony crime for first-time offenders.
Ron Gordon is the Executive Director of Utah's criminal and juvenile justice commission. He says the new approach to drug crime is part of a larger strategy to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders taking up prison beds.
“When an offender goes to prison because they have a drug addiction, the most likely scenario is that they are more likely to offend than they were before they went,” Gordon says. “That’s why we propose that wherever possible, they be treated and supervised in the community.”
The 18 recommendations were approved unanimously by the commission, but now Utah lawmakers will decide whether to approve the changes during the upcoming legislative session. Republican Representative Eric Hutchings of Kearns will be the House sponsor of the bill. He expects his colleagues and the public will need some convincing.
“That’s going to be the hardest thing is to help people understand that we are in no way softening our stance on illegal drug use or substance abuse, but we are hoping that those who want out will have the resources to get out,” Hutchings says. He says the recommendations require some significant money from the budget, and he says it will take support from all sides to get it passed.
Governor Gary Herbert stopped short of endorsing the proposals and said he still needs time to consider them.
“I like what I hear,” he said. “I think we’re on the right road going in the right direction. So I expect this will in fact culminate in good legislation being passed in this upcoming legislative session.”
The recommendations requested by Herbert earlier this year are part of a broader effort to relocate the state prison currently in Draper. Another commission is studying that move.