On prison move: We’re evolving

It is interesting what a year of study and reflection will do. Last year at this time we were working with various groups to oppose moving the Utah State Prison from its current location in Draper, at the south end of Salt Lake County. A year ago the legislature was rushing through, without consulting the public, what looked like would be a pretty sweet deal for developers.

We were not amused. The public wasn’t either. And the legislature responded by voting to create a bipartisan committee that would be tasked with studying a possible prison relocation. Our not-so-fashion-conscious legislators went with the name PRADA, or Prison Relocation and Development Authority.

After studying the issue more indepth and following the PRADA committee for the past year, we’ve finally caught up on the prison move. It’ll probably take the public a little longer, though. The Letters-to-the-Editor sections of both major dailies, the Tribune and Deseret News, still suggest that people are apprehensive of a prison move, but the Tribune’s restrained endorsement of such a move will probably go a long way to framing how their readers think about it.

Here’s why we think you should get on board.

First, key national and local leaders across the political spectrum, like Attorney General Eric Holder, Congressman Jason Chaffetz, and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, all agree that the time is ripe to create a more progressive prison policy–doing that will require a more progressive prison.

We’re hopeful state legislators will take advantage of the historic opportunity they have to lead the rest of the country in reforming what is largely a broken criminal justice system — in their process to move the prison.

Second, the prison discussion is finally happening in the open. Any discussions about moving the prison must occur as transparently as possible. That means ensuring an open outcome for all stakeholders: the taxpayers, the correctional officers, the prison volunteers, the inmates, the communities and families to which those inmates return, and the residents of Utah.

You’ll notice that among the list of stakeholders, I didn’t include our state legislators. According to an analysis by the Tribune, there are 21 representatives who have real estate and development ties. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser is himself a developer. All legislators with real estate ties should publicly declare a conflict of interest on their respective floors before they vote to approve a prison move. Since Utah law does not allow legislators to abstain from voting, those same legislators should prohibit themselves, through code, from engaging in any real estate doings that result from the prison move.

Third, the resolution supporting the prison move includes a nod to prison reform. The new prison should be modeled on the prison policy of the future. Mandatory minimum sentencing, changes to drug crimes, alternative sentencing options, pre-release facilities, probation-offender centers, and post-incarceration treatment options should all be addressed.

Those are three pretty good, yet reasonably cautious reasons to seek a move.

As an organization, we saw it was prudent to change our advocacy efforts to better reflect the possibility of bringing a greater good to the State of Utah. So often, as a government watchdog group, much of what we do is preventing bad stuff from happening. Occasionally there presents an opportunity to advocate for good things to happen, too. Moving the prison with the guarantee that Utahns will benefit, both in tax revenue and prison reform, isn’t just a good thing: it’s a really great one.

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