Utah’s prison population has increased by 22% in the last decade and the recidivism rate is at 46%. The prison population currently costs state taxpayers more than $250 million annually and the state projected to add an additional 2,700 prison beds in the next two decades, all on the taxpayer’s dime. Over the past decade, the state has seen a 22% increase in crime rates, and projections show that rate could climb higher over the next 20 years.
Seven of the ten most common offenses leading to incarceration are nonviolent; these offenses are for the possession or use of a controlled substance. In addition, PEW research findings show about 80% of youth entering the court system for the first time present a low risk to reoffend. Yet, a high proportion of these low-level offenders are being placed out of home, at a significant cost to the state. Out of home placement costs an average of $95,000 per youth per year -- roughly 17 times more than community supervision.
In 2015, Governor Gary Herbert (R) signed legislation intending to lower the state’s high recidivism rates. It emphasizes finding the most effective programs for offenders with addictions and/or mental illness while in prison. The bill also strengthened probation and parole systems. Parole systems respond with immediate punishments and rewards for offenders who cooperate or violate the terms of their supervision. Immediate responses to violations have been shown to sharply cut down on recidivism through models such as the HOPE court.
In 2017, Utah passed a bill that makes numerous changes to Utah’s juvenile code to keep lower-level delinquent youth out of costly detention and instead provide evidence-based, home-based counseling and supervision in the community. The bill establishes statutory standards for which youth may be removed from their homes and redirects averted costs toward expanding effective community-based services to all court districts in the state.
Utah has furthered its juvenile justice reform by passing legislation in 2020, blocking children under 13 from being prosecuted in the event they have broken the law, however there are still some exceptions. Instead, rehabilitation programs are prioritized to ensure the long-term success of young offenders.
Because of the 2015 bill, Utah is expected to curb prison growth and save taxpayers more than $500 million over 20 years. Accompanying budget measures immediately redirected nearly $14 million toward reducing recidivism by strengthening community supervision, public safety initiatives, and evidence-based treatment programs.
Utah’s 2017 bill is projected to reduce its population of youth placed in state custody for delinquency or status offenses by a 47% reduction from projected baseline levels without policy change. This is projected to free up more than $70 million in state funds for reinvestment into evidence-based programs from reductions in operating costs and savings from out-of-home placement contracts. The bill establishes standards and criteria for pre-court diversions, caps fines and fees, limits school-based court referrals, and sets limits on the amount of time youth can spend in detention centers and under probation.
Identification of legislation should not be considered an endorsement of support of, or opposition to, such bills.
Utah has lower incarceration rates than the majority of the surrounding region, largely due to effective policy systems.