Utah’s Drug Offenses Spiking Despite Sweeping Reform: Report

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Photo by Find Rehab Centers via Flickr

Utah residents with previous low-level drug convictions have begun reoffending and are finding themselves back in court facing new charges “more often, not less” often, following the state’s 2015 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). 

A new Utah audit of the 2015 JRI recently released cites “inadequate treatment options” and “hefty workloads for probation officers” as the reasons for stagnation in the state’s longtime goal to reduce recidivism, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. 

But advocates say that other states can learn from Utah’s mistakes.

The original 2015 JRI reform was described as “sweeping.”  Proponents had short term goals to reduce recidivism through strengthening treatment services and supporting parole supervision. 

The JRI also outlined long-term solutions, partnering with Utah’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, Utah Department of Corrections, and the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole to come up with solutions to support and help the Utah residents suffering from drug addictions landing them in the criminal justice system. 

The new 182-page audit of the 2015 JRI says that not all of its “evidence-based policy recommendations” failed, citing that the initiative did meet its goal of cutting down Utah’s prison population, limiting the cost and capacity to run incarceration facilities. 

However, that seems to be where the good news stops and the push for more work begins, Deseret News explains.

The JRI helped reduce sentences for low-level drug crimes, resulting in judges granting most offenders probation instead of prison time. But the state wasn’t equipped or prepared to handle the “resulting wave of people placed on pretrial release,” Deseret News writes. 

To compound the newfound workload for Utah probation officers, this legislative shift coincided with a surge of painkiller and heroin usage in the state. 

The rate of nonviolent drug offenders facing new criminal charges has spiked, increasing from 29 percent in 2013, before the JRI, to 37 percent in 2018 following the new legislative implementations, the audit cites. 

“The data suggests Utah’s criminal justice system has not yet developed an effective response for offenders who suffer from serious drug addiction,” the audit says, as quoted by the Deseret News.

Failing Treatment Options

Auditors first determined that despite the $11 million in funding given each year to public treatment services since 2017, there are too few treatment services available — especially in rural parts of Utah. 

This has led to a tripling in the number of “chronic drug offenders,” a local Fox News affiliate detailed. 

They based this finding on an outside survey of probation officers and on their discussions with county sheriffs and judges.

In some cases,  Utah government agencies simply didn’t gather the information needed to compile addiction treatment and mental health progress reports. 

“Without a standard system, they used different metrics and software,” the auditors wrote, as quoted by the Deseret News. “It means the state doesn’t know which treatment programs or other sorts of interventions are working.”

Local sheriffs share their personal experiences, saying that since the JRI reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor offense in the 2015 legislation, some offenders are “no longer motivated to seek treatment for their drug addictions,” the report outlines. 

After hearing the results from the legislative audit, Representative Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said, as quoted by the Deseret News, that the need for more targeted substance abuse and mental health treatment and probation officers’ “hefty” caseloads means “we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

Lessons for Other States

The auditors, journalists and activists used the case  as an example for other states to hopefully analyze and learn from. 

The auditors recommend that Utah create a single statewide data portal so that law enforcement officers, judges, and lawmakers can all have access to each other’s “crucial information.”

Without such a database, the auditors wrote, the lack of internal transparency could “threaten public safety.”

A separate criminal justice audit found other lapses in communication and data sharing, the Deseret News explains, as Utah law enforcers’ had a tendency to not report warrants for criminals into a national database, leading to further crimes happening out of the state by traveling Utah criminals. 

One example the report outlined was of a suspect in a child sexual abuse case in Utah who left the state and was later arrested by Colorado officers for similar charges.

“That might not have happened if Utah had reported its warrant and flagged the suspect for extradition,” the authors of the report wrote. 

The auditors also recommended that the Utah Judicial Council should track judges’ compliance with laws requiring minimum fines, as the amount someone is fined is closely tied to where a person is sentenced, rather than the type of offense.

Finally, the local Fox News affiliate mentions that the report suggests more funding should be provided “at a local level” to help with the mental health and addiction demands. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

One thought on “Utah’s Drug Offenses Spiking Despite Sweeping Reform: Report

  1. Utah needs to wake up and realize that jails and prisons are not crowded because there are too many people in them. They are crowded because too many people are committing crimes. Letting people out of prison and then calling it a success because there are less people in prison is ludicrous. Especially when the people you let out are just reoffending and continuing their bad behavior. Instead of putting a band aide on the problem, maybe its time to focus up the food chain a bit and start teaching our youth to not commit crimes in the first place. Start teaching people the important of family and being a responsible member of a community. Start there and watch the crime rates fall. And less crime, less people incarcerated.

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