The U.S. shares 5% of the world’s population but houses 25% of the world’s prison population. Additionally, those incarcerated are disproportionally minority populations, poor, or both.
Utah has made efforts to reduce incarceration through legislation passed in 2015 known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). The legislation is geared to reverse Utah’s trend of prison population growth at six times faster than the national average. The JRI changed sentencing and parole guidelines and created program oversight to reduce incarceration and recidivism.
Legislation is one key step to reduce incarceration rates, but it is not a panacea. Fortunately, more can be done to address Utah’s continued high incarceration rates and racial disparities.
The first step in a criminal prosecution involves the prosecutor, the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system. A prosecutor decides what charges to file, what plea deal to offer, if any, and argues whether a person should be released from jail on bond. The prosecutor, known as either the County Attorney or District Attorney, determines criminal justice policy within the county office and can influence policy at the state level.
Most Utah counties elect their prosecutor, but most elections are uncontested. This allows tried and failed tough on crime policies to continue unchecked. Uncontested prosecutorial elections also allow candidates to avoid tough questions, such as how a candidate plans to address racial disparities in local prosecutions, or how a candidate would address prosecutorial misconduct in their office.
The upcoming 2018 elections create an opportunity for constituents to ask their local prosecutors about criminal justice reform issues, even if the election is uncontested.
An informed public that can hold prosecutors accountable is key for a healthy and just democracy.
The last step in a criminal case is just as important as the first step, which often involves the Board of Pardons and Parole.
The parole board determines when an incarcerated person may have a parole hearing and whether a person will be released from prison. In Utah, the parole board uses a guideline to make these determinations, but it may deviate from the guidelines on a case-by-case basis. This means that people with the same sentences for the same crimes can have different outcomes, notably in incarceration length.
Parole board determinations in Utah are final and cannot be appealed. Additionally, lawyers or other advocates for a parolee can only appear in particular circumstances. This limits a person’s ability to sufficiently represent themselves at a hearing and precludes challenging a seemingly unjust or inconsistent decision.
Fair parole hearings and consistent decisions are essential to respect a person’s rights and create successful outcomes for re-entry into the community.
Criminal justice reform is already happening around the country, which includes pioneering prosecutorial oversight right here in Utah. The ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice in Utah will address criminal justice reform issues for just, fair, and safe outcomes for individuals and communities alike.