Prison Relocation: PRADA Ignoring the Present

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring the inner workings of PRADA – Utah’s Prison Relocation and Development Authority.

Listening to PRADA talk about the proposed prison relocation is a lot like looking through a pinhole.
prison relocation image
Through the pinhole, you see the prison, in isolation, sitting on high-value Draper real estate. And that’s about it. No real discussion about the broader picture of criminal justice in our country, just that little pinhole.

Since PRADA 2.0 started meeting in June, various groups have been called to present to the board. This has the effect of slightly jostling the pinhole around – but not much. Move a bit to the right, and you’ll see a county jail where low-threat state inmates are occasionally incarcerated (and for which the county is paid, per inmate, by the state). Shift to the left, and maybe you’ll get a sense of what facility upgrades the current prison administration might like.

By the end of each meeting, however, key PRADA board members effectively yank everyone’s gaze squarely back to where they think it belongs: that parcel of land in Draper, which inconveniently houses nearly 4,000 prisoners.*

Hire a real estate appraiser! Draft an RFP! All eyes back to the pinhole!

PRADA’s pinhole approach glaringly ignores what everyone else is talking about:

Reducing prison populations, NOT building new prisons. 

By ignoring the present – where experts and officials are talking about how America can be doing criminal justice better and cheaper – PRADA is missing an exciting golden opportunity.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently issued a call for sentencing reform before the American Bar Association. “(T)here are too many people in jail for too long and for not necessarily good reasons,” said Holder, signaling his support for an end to mandatory minimum sentences, one of the Drug War’s most devastating legacies.

I guess you can forgive PRADA, with its conservative bent, for not listening too closely to President Obama’s right-hand man at DOJ.

But what about U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz? He recently told the Salt Lake Tribune, “There’s some really good work being dong by states we ought to learn from” to reduce the prison population. “It’s a financial imperative, it’s a moral imperative – it just makes a lot of sense.”

Chaffetz’s proposed reforms are based on innovations undertaken in Texas – yes, TEXAS! – that saved the state close to $2 billion in construction and operating costs. Legislators in Texas undertook the “Justice Reinvestment Process” after rejecting a plan to spend more than $500 million to build and operate new prison facilities. Sound familiar? This is the golden opportunity our public officials are missing.

And if Jason Chaffetz doesn’t have the conservative bona fides to sway PRADA, how about legitimate Tea Party crazy person U.S. Senator Mike Lee?

Sen. Lee recently co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, which seeks to reform sentencing by giving more discretion to judges and reducing some mandatory minimum sentences. His argument, like that of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), is largely a fiscal one. We simply can’t afford it.

The chorus of voices calling not for new prisons, but for real criminal justice reform, includes plenty of strange bedfellows – including both the ACLU and Grover Norquist’s American’s for Tax Reform. Many states have answered the call.

New York has reduced its prison population by 17% since 2003. Arkansas adopted reforms like those in Texas, reducing its prisoners by 1,400. Kentucky is enacting reforms that, by keeping only the most dangerous criminals in prison, are expected to reduce the state’s prison population by 3,000 over ten years, saving $400 million.

And yet, PRADA is thinking about adding 134 prisoners, every year, to prison and jail beds statewide. Where is the PRADA we really need – the Prison Reform and De-population Authority?

Anna Brower is pursuing an MPA at the University of Utah. 

*An earlier version of this post had inaccurately listed the number of prisoners. The correct number is shown.

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