Prison Reform in Utah: Setting A Reformative Model for the U.S. to Follow


The U.S. Prison population has grown staggeringly high, and its magnitude is not necessarily the reflection of the growth of an especially dangerous population, but rather a retributive value system which emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation. Utah’s governor Gary Herbert endeavored to solve this problem when he noticed that: “Although crime in Utah fell during the past two decades, the state’s prison population grew by 18 percent from 2004 to 2013, six times faster than the national average.”[1] While crime itself was falling, the prison population in Utah was growing exponentially, indicating that the purported goal of the penal system was faulty and unrealistic. Given that the function of the penal system is to incarcerate criminals, falling crime rates should lead to falling prison populations, but this was evidently not the case.

This finding was not only morally dubious because it implied a basic flaw in the efficiency our justice system, but it was also economically disastrous because of the astronomical costs associated with the penal system. As Pew notes, “This anticipated expansion [in Utah] would have had a high price tag; in 2013 alone, the state spent $269 million on corrections. Additionally, the state was grappling with the possible relocation of its largest prison, projected to cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, with at least half of the cost tied to expected increases in the incarcerated population.”[2] Herbert’s response was to curb the growing prison population through determining which inmates were least harmful to society and thereby reducing the sentences for those inmates.

In March of 2015, Herbert introduced House Bill 348, a bill that proposes to “amend Utah Code provisions regarding corrections, sentencing, probation and parole, controlled substance offenses, substance abuse and mental health treatment, vehicle offenses, and related provisions to modify penalties and sentencing guidelines, treatment programs for persons in the criminal justice system, and probation and parole compliance and violations to address recidivism.”[3] Rather than perpetuating a system which is based on ineffective and unjust punishment, this bill is focused on “substance abuse and mental health treatment”—which also serves to recognize the needs of drug addicts and mentally ill rather than neglect them.

As a result, the bill required that “criminal risk factors” are taken into account in determining which treatment and governmental programs would be most helpful to incarcerated individuals.[4] This term “criminal risk factors” was defined as outside influences which could lead to a higher propensity for an individual to commit a crime. These factors led to implications into the courtroom, which could now take into account a criminal’s background and acknowledge that societal inequalities should be factored into determining a criminal’s punishment—and rightfully so.

Following the analysis on “criminal risk factors,” the bill continues by addressing individual improvement efforts, stating that the state “requires that the Sentencing Commission establish graduated incentives to provide prompt and effective responses to an offender's compliance and positive conduct.”[5] Thus, beyond addressing the social inequities or motive behind a crime, the bill also addresses the need to positively reward compliant behavior—serving to rehabilitate and reform rather than punish.

Inspired by Herbert’s example in Utah, Democrats are also crafting The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to incentivize states to reduce their prison populations. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was an amendment to The Controlled Substances Act, which sought to lower mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. This act defined the essential term “serious drug felony” by referencing the United States Code, meaning that enhanced sentencing could no longer be arbitrarily given.[6] In addition, the act gave judges the discretion to reduce their initial sentencing of prisoners whom they, in retrospect, deemed worthy of a less severe punishment.[7] Though the reform bill was rejected in 2005, in October of 2017, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa republican, and Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois democrat, decided to jointly tackle the problem of cyclical incarceration and endorse The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This bipartisan bill seeks to lower prison populations through a series of logical, necessary institutional changes—which reach towards the fundamental goal of privileging reform over punitive punishment.

Another unique proposal within this reformative bill was that of time credits, in which “a prisoner who has successfully completed a recidivism reduction program or productive activity that has been certified under paragraph (2)(B) shall receive time credits of 5 days for each period 22 of 30 days of successful completion of such program or activity.”[8] To both incentivize positive behavior and reduce prison sentencing, time credits were awarded to prisoners actively seeking self-improvement and could only be awarded to low-risk prisoners, but the bill also states that “such incentives may include additional telephone or visitation privileges for use with family, close friends, mentors, and religious leaders.”[9] Even though they cannot be rewarded with an earlier release, higher risk prisoners should still have the opportunity for positive reinforcement after demonstrating good behavior. On February 15th, 2018, this bill was proposed; thus, it is unclear whether or not it will be implemented. However, its bipartisan sponsorship shows that this issue crosses party lines and provides hope that it will indeed be passed.

While Utah can provide a model for punitive reform, it is clear that this issue must continue to be addressed on a national scale. With The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act on the horizon, efforts are in place to tackle this issue of overcrowding prisons and cyclical incarceration on a broader scale. Over time, the desired function of our prison system has been perverted by notions of vengeance and righteousness taking precedence over aims of rehabilitation. Maintaining a high prison population not only taxes our economy but also reflects a poor execution of justice. Puritanical notions of vengeance and punishment for the sake of punishment itself should no longer perpetuate in the prison system. Rather than a cycle of injustice and reincarceration, the carceral system should and must be as an opportunity for rehabilitation and self-improvement—and Utah is finally taking strong strides to this just goal.

[1] Utah's 2015 Criminal Justice Reforms." The Pew Charitable Trusts. http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2015/06/utahs-2015-criminal-justice-reforms.

[2] "Utah’s 2015 Criminal Justice Reforms." The Pew Charitable Trusts. June 2015.

http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2015/06/utahs2015criminaljusticereforms.pdf?la=en.

[3] "H.B. 348 Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments." Utah State Legislature. https://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0348.html.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] "A Bill to reform sentencing laws and correctional institutions, and for other purposes." Chuck Grassley United States Senator for Iowa. https://www.grassley.senate.gov/sites/default/files/constituents/Sentencing%2C%2010-04-17%2C%20SRCA%20115%20Bill%20Text.pdf.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.