New Utah Initiative Pushes Drug Treatment Over Prison

By McCarton Ackerman 10/08/15

Even judges in a highly conservative state can see the failure of the drug war.

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Judges in several state courts in Utah are starting to switch their tune when it comes to non-violent drug offenders, opting for more lenient sentences that favor treatment over incarceration.

The changes are part of B348, otherwise known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which was approved this year by the Utah Legislature and went into effect on Oct. 1.

All first- and second-degree drug felony possession charges have now been reduced to misdemeanors, while 241 misdemeanors have been reduced even further to infractions. Drug-free zones have also been reduced from 1,000 feet to 100 feet and automatic sentences involving the sale and distribution will be more limited. Those on parole and probation will also have the chance to reduce their time on supervised release.

"People don't have a burglary problem or a forgery problem," said Salt Lake City defense attorney Clayton Simms. "They have a drug problem that leads them to commit crimes."

This initiative is expected to save taxpayers more than $500 million over the next two decades by eliminating the need to house more prisoners. Utah state prisons currently house 6,700 inmates and this population jumped 18% from 2004 to 2013.

But while some are wondering what will happen to the non-violent offenders who were sentenced before the effective date of Oct. 1, state officials insisted that chances for them to reduce their sentences have long been in place.

Angela Micklos, chair of the parole board, said that conditions have been in place since at least 2009 to cut prison time for inmates who meet the terms of their case plans as a way to reward good behavior. The board must reduce sentences by at least four months when an inmate completes a priority in their case plan and additional cuts of three to six months are available for those who complete an education or substance abuse program.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.