Utah, Other States Cut Drug Penalties; Will Crime Rates Stay Down?


In an ambitious experiment in criminal justice, Utah has reduced drug penalties, lowered sentencing guidelines and scaled back punishment for parole violations that had been sending offenders back to prison in droves, the Wall Street Journal reports. Utah officials hope the law will halt the state's prison growth and save more than $500 million over 20 years, without sacrificing public safety. Some criminal-justice experts and law-enforcement officials question whether states can, in the long run, keep crime down while emptying prisons. “The proof is going to be in the data and the results,” said John King, chief of police in Provo and a member of a state commission that came up with Utah's new policy. “If it doesn't work out, we can go back and make harsher laws.”

More than 30 states have adjusted their laws and policies to try to restrain prison populations since 2007. Lawmakers and advocates for reducing the prison population and others in the criminal-justice field expect the trend to continue in 2016. Lawmakers from both major parties believe that high rates of recidivism are a drain on resources and as evidence of the failure of prisons to rehabilitate. Utah and several other states have allocated more money for rehabilitation programs, as they have eased penalties. Officials in Alaska, Maryland, Oklahoma and Rhode Island also have signaled their desire for overhauls. Critics of reducing penalties for crime point to upticks in homicides in dozens of major cities in 2015. “If you shorten sentences, you are going to have people coming out earlier and going back to crime earlier,” said Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

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