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Legislative Recap Week Five: Criminal Justice Reform, Family Planning & Yurts

Photo of a yurt
National Park Service
Utah lawmakers are considering a bill that would remove yurts from the state construction code and the state fire code.

Utah lawmakers are picking up speed, moving lots of bills through the state Legislature. This week, the news was dominated by a bill essentially decriminalizing consensual polygamy, a $35 million affordable housing bill, and lawmakers coming to a compromise over revisions to an anti-gerrymandering law. KUER's Caroline Ballard met with political reporter Sonja Hutson in the Capitol Press Room to go over some other stories you may have missed. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Let’s start with some bills that deal with criminal justice reform. 

Sonja Hutson: There were two that I wanted to highlight. One is a bill by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, that would stop kids who are younger than 12 from being prosecuted. Instead of being prosecuted, they would go into diversion programs, which can include things like paying restitution to victims, doing community service or undergoing substance abuse treatment. 

It does exempt more serious crimes like rape or felony aggravated arson. Kids that are accused of those crimes would still be prosecuted and go through the traditional juvenile criminal justice system.

CB: And the other bill deals with bail reform, right?

SH: The other one is a bill by Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, and it's a little more complicated than Hall’s bill. At its core, what it's trying to do is move Utah's criminal justice system away from relying so heavily on the cash bail system.

What Pitcher’s bill would do is require judges to release people before they start their trial on the “least restrictive condition,” and it gives judges kind of a menu to choose from. So they make a determination based on things like public safety, flight risk and potential threats to witnesses the person may hold. 

I should also note that people accused of serious crimes are not eligible for this.

Pitcher says the cash bail system now can basically allow a rich person who is a big threat to public safety to pay their way out of jail, while a poor person who is not necessarily a risk to public safety would have to stay in jail. 

Members of the bail industry, however, are strongly opposed to this, and they say that it infringes on the right to bail under Utah's constitution.

CB: Let's move on to health care. Sen. Derek Kitchen’s, D-Salt Lake City, bill that would expand Medicaid to provide family planning services to low income people passed the Senate this week. Tell us about that bill.

SH: The people that would be eligible for these family planning services, which do not include abortions under this bill, are people that are over 18 and earn 250% of the federal poverty level or less. 

So, for a single person or a household of one that would be about $32,000. And this is really interesting that this passed in the context of some of the abortion bill debates that we've been having in the Legislature here.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, for example, has this bill that would ban all elective abortions at all stages of pregnancy if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. And McCay and Sen. Kitchen were actually in a media availability together on Monday, and they talked about how these are different strategies to limiting abortion. 

Sen. Kitchen says, “you know, I also want to limit abortions by giving people access to contraceptive services,” and McCay actually supported Kitchen’s bill and said, “yeah, I want to do that too. But we also need to have this restraint on the other side of things.”

CB: Gov. Gary Herbert held a press conference this week. What did we learn in it?

SH: He touched on the coronavirus, which obviously has been getting a lot of press. He reiterated that there are no confirmed cases in Utah and that the state is hoping for the best but preparing the worst. That includes consistent check-ins between the state health department and local health departments around the state. 

Herbert also said that he thinks President Trump is downplaying the severity of the situation. But he said he's not relying on D.C. to assist with this problem in Utah. He's relying on Utah's health department. 

Herbert also mentioned that he would be opposed to this resolution censuring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney [over his vote to convict Trump on one article of impeachment] that the Utah GOP Central Committee is supposed to vote on [Saturday]. He said, “We need to be very careful about censoring someone's opinion,” especially someone who he thinks has shown the willingness to think deeply and analyze an issue. So he kind of trusts Romney to make his own decision, even if he would make a different one. 

CB: Alright, we've covered a lot of heavy but important political issues, but it is a Friday afternoon. Are there any bills on a lighter note that lawmakers have shown some love this week? 

SH: Yes, lawmakers showed yurts some love on Thursday afternoon. A bill removes yurts from the state construction code and the state fire code. And the bill sponsor Rep. Brady Brammer’s, R-Pleasant Grove, point throughout his presentation and throughout debate on the House floor was that yurts are basically fancy tents and not buildings, so we shouldn't be treating them like buildings.

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