Judiciary Interim Committee Meeting – 6/21
Justice Reinvestment Initiative Presentation
Chair Todd Weiler began the meeting by inviting two representatives from the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Doreen Wayland, JRI Coordinator, and Sofia Nystrom presented some effects of HB348, the bill establishing the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). This program is meant to assist certain drug offenders through rehabilitation so that they can effectively re-enter the community, and to create a more effective justice system in general.
One goal is to reduce prison populations such that prison beds are used primarily for serious and violent offenders. As 97% of offenders will eventually be back in the community, it is important that they are prepared to do so. The JRI provided funding for ASCENT (Achieving Success Through Collaborative Engagement and Navigated Transition), a program from the Department of Corrections to help offenders transition back into communities. Perhaps the most effective part of JRI has been reduced sentencing for those charged with possession.
Rep. Lowry Snow asked for clarification about the lighter sentencing. Ms. Wayland answered that a possession only charge went from third degree felony to a “misdemeanor A” for first and second convictions. Snow clarified that the lighter sentences focus on people who are addicted, needing help rather than incarceration. He wanted to confirm that sentencing for traffickers remain tough. “Those who involve themselves in trafficking are still subject to the heavy penalties of the law.” Wayland replied that trafficking charges have not been altered.
Ms. Nystrom introduced a screening and analysis system to determine which offenders are “high risk and high need.” A screening tool is meant to predict criminal tendencies. Impulse control, antisocial behavior, and association with other people inclined to criminal behavior are the biggest “criminogenic risk factors”. Those that have high risk and high need require rehabilitation the most.
Shared data from the Department of Corrections showed that the prison population has declined with the implementation of HB348, in a way that targets nonviolent offenders. In FY 2014, 41% of inmates were nonviolent offenders. In FY 2017, that number dropped to 32%, indicating one metric of success. Also, more minor offenses are being charged as misdemeanors instead of felonies than before the initiative.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard recalled that there used to be a long waiting list to get into drug court, which is the path to rehabilitation. He asked if, since JRI was initiated, it has been easier to get into drug court due to lower demand. He asked if sentencing was weak enough that offenders prefer to “spend a weekend in jail” rather than enter rehabilitation through the court. Ms. Nystrom said that a misdemeanor is serious enough that there is still incentive to seek rehabilitation.
Rick Schwermer, state court administrator, confirmed Nystrom’s statement. Eligibility for drug court is affected by your risk and need. High-risk and high-need gets you into court, and the nature of the offense is not relevant. Those with misdemeanors should have the same access as those with felonies.
Schwermer began a presentation on the drug court. The first step is to screen the offender to determine risk and need levels. He stated the importance of allowing low-risk offenders to have their space. Over-handling these people often has a negative effect. Mixing them with high-risk offenders can be negative as well. Treatment where it is not needed tends to cause more harm than good. Speaking to the positive effects of drug court on those who need it, Schwermer claims that personal interaction with a judge is the most effective part. The judge’s presence as a supportive authority figure makes a big difference, as many do not have that type of presence in their lives. The success rate is much lower without a judge, and that, he claims, is why drug courts are so important.
Further information, documents, and a recording can be found on the legislature website: https://le.utah.gov/asp/interim/Commit.asp?Year=2017&Com=INTJUD