A bold and sweeping criminal justice bill stressing community treatment beds over gray bars and barbed wire for non-violent offenders was voted favorably out of the Utah House by a near-unanimous vote Tuesday. But that wasn't before prosecutors wrote some changes into the bill.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah criticized some of these changes, especially an amendment giving prosecutors more latitude to bump drug possession charges back to felonies. The original bill language sought to clearly downgrade such charges to misdemeanors.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, acknowledged that the bill had to go through a process of negotiation with all stakeholders, but that all were brought to the table—a fairly massive table, figuratively speaking since he received feedback from citizens, lawmakers, mental health providers, the Utah Department of Corrections, Adult Probation and Parole, prosecutors and the Utah Sentencing Commission, just to name a few.
Hutchings explained that House Bill 348
would draw on $15 million in funds to support community treatment resources for offenders with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The bill would enable a panel of state agency experts including representatives of the Utah Division of Substance and Mental Health to create standards that community treatment providers would have to follow to receive the funding. The standards would define outcomes for success and track those outcomes in order for offenders to be diverted from the courts to the treatment centers.
“If they don't have those standards we will not pay for those programs and we will not send people to those programs,” Hutchings said.
The other component of the bill would be the reduction of penalties designed to keep non-violent offenders out of the correctional system. Hutchings emphasized how the bill would also beef up supervision of individuals on probation and parole and improve incentives for offenders on parole, while also lessening the number of offenders who would be sent back to jail for technical parole violations.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, one of only three lawmakers who voted against Hutchings' bill, asked if the bill's reduction of penalties for drug possession would send the message that drugs were not dangerous?
Hutchings countered that existing policies have done next to nothing to discourage people from using drugs, given that “80 percent of people we currently have in our prison have a substance abuse problem—so apparently it's not that big of a deterrent now,” Hutchings said.
Powell's criticism was drowned out by other lawmakers who rose in support of the bill.
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, reminded lawmakers of the findings of the Pew Charitable Trust and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which both found that failure to enact reforms will lead to a 37 percent growth in Utah's prison population in the next two decades at a cost of more than $500 million to taxpayers.
Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, told colleagues of his “13 years of hell as a parent” of a child with a substance-abuse problem and how important a bill like Hutchings' could be to help divert those with addictions into treatment instead of jail or prison.
“I pray to God that none of you have to go through what we've gone through. The reason I'm fighting so hard today is for that next generation of grandkids,” Cunningham said. “We need to do this.”
Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, a physician who works with mentally ill individuals inside and outside of the correctional system applauded the bill. He told lawmakers of the work he would often do with people inside the jail to get them counseling and medication, only to then see them released back into society without a safety net.
“We send them out back into the world without any resources and they basically fall down again and come back to our system again and again and again,” Redd said. “If we can find a way to do this outside the jail it's going to be a really revolutionary thing for the state.”
A few Democratic lawmakers asked Hutchings how Medicaid expansion could benefit the bill, a reference to a debate currently at a boiling point on the hill about how the House will treat Governor Herbert's Healthy Utah plan to expand Medicaid to more than 100,000 Utahns—an expansion that could provide even more services for treating those with addictions and mental illness.
Hutchings pointed out that people incarcerated cannot receive Medicaid. However, he also cited an estimate that 90 percent of those incarcerated would qualify for Medicaid once released. If the Legislature signed off on some form of expansion, the benefit, he said, could be “tremendous.”
That debate, however, is far from decided. Hutchings' HB 348, however, passed favorably from the house floor 72-3, and will now head to the senate for further debate.
To read HB 348 click here. To contact Rep. Hutchings about his bill click here. To find your legislator to contact them about this bill click here. For more updates from the hill visit CityWeekly.net and follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.