Utah’s state prison population of serious criminals has mostly dropped over the last two decades. But a new report released this week shows the number of offenders housed in jails actually rose at the same time.
In some states, including Utah, shrinking prison populations hide the fact that more offenders are being sent to jail, which primarily hold people who’ve not yet been convicted of a crime or are serving short sentences, researchers from the nonprofit research group Vera Institute of Justice report.
Utah is one of 11 states that reduced its prison population but saw jail numbers increase between 2010 and 2015, according to the report. It shows many states have reduced prison populations by reclassifying some offenses that were formally felonies as misdeeanors. Utah did this in 2015 when it passed sweeping criminal justice reforms. But researchers said this has led to exchanging prison stays for jail in many cases.
Jasmine Heiss, one of authors of the Vera Instiute report, said that can be problematic.
“When people are shifted to low-resourced county jails to serve out prison sentences, there’s virtually no correction happening in that corrections time," Heiss said. "I’m sure many people would argue that there’s not nearly enough happening in states. But we know in many places jail time can be even harsher.”
The report points out that in Utah, however, some people serving prison sentences in county jails actually benefit from services provided through state funding and the Department of Corrections’ Inmate Placement Program.
From 2000 to 2015, Utah went from 11th to eighth in the nation for people serving sentences in local jails. The top seven states include Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana and New Mexico. For many of these states, local jail inmates are serving prison sentences and the jails contract with often overcrowded state prisons to house their inmates.
Still, the report shows 34 states have reduced their total prison and jail incarceration rates since the national peak in 2007. Vera researchers said that suggests reforms designed to reduce overall incarceration have been successful.
"The aim of this report is not to throw cold water on reform, but rather to add fuel to the fire," said Christian Henrichson, Vera's research director. "Vera's research shows there is an urgent need to rethink our approach to ending mass incarceration.
While we celebrate the successes that have been achieved, the road to countering systemic injustice is difficult and complex."