State official objects to justice reform critics, says drug courts are thriving

Wednesday , January 31, 2018 - 5:00 AM

Drug courts continue to operate effectively as a key component of Utah’s 2015 justice system reforms, a state official says, contrary to assertions by prosecutors that some people who should be behind bars are slipping through the net.

“Those opposing criminal justice reform have been trying to use drug court numbers as evidence that the reforms are failing, but the evidence just isn't there,” Marshall Thompson, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, said. 

RELATED: Utah drug courts decline, an unwelcome symptom of system reform

The 2015 Justice Reinvestment Initiative, pushed through by Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature, reduced penalties from felonies to misdemeanors for some nonviolent crimes and outlined systems for sentence reductions, enhanced substance abuse and mental health treatment for offenders, and a greater focus on probation and parole.

JRI backers say the reforms are reducing state prison populations, funneling more nonviolent offenders into addiction-fighting treatment programs and giving more resources to jail screeners, probation officers and halfway houses.

In a recent interview, Weber County Attorney Chris Allred estimated local drug court enrollments were down about 30 percent since the JRI took effect. Allred said removing the possibility of a felony conviction for a drug defendant undermines the incentive for moving an offender into drug court.

In Utah’s drug courts, offenders undergo a year or more of rigorous court supervision and drug addiction treatment, and if successful, the criminal charges against them are dropped.

“There are opponents of criminal justice reform across the country who have used this false narrative about drug courts being hurt to encourage a rollback of reforms,” Thompson said in an email. “Maybe drug courts in other states are failing, but not in Utah.”

Thompson provided state court system data showing Weber County’s drug court participation actually is up. The county had 245 drug court cases in 2017, compared to 152 in 2014, before the JRI. The number of drug court hearings on those cases totaled 1,993 last year, up from 1,409 in 2014.

In another measure, statewide drug court clients served have dipped 9 percent since 2014 (from 2,196 to 2,032), according to the state’s JRI 2017 annual report. Drug court program admissions, meantime, increased from 2,039 to 2,081.

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In an interview, Thompson explained that admissions may be up because more people went through drug court once and were re-admitted because they needed more help.

Drug court is best for “high-need and high-risk” offenders, Thompson said. 

“They need to be closely monitored and get treatment” to reduce the risk of re-offending, he said.

But sending a first-time marijuana smoker to drug court can be counterproductive, he said. 

“If you put him in drug court, suddenly he’s in a serious group of drug users with access to dealers,” Thompson said, and it’s also stigmatizing.

“We are actually heartened initially by these results,” he said. “It looks like the high-risk, high-needs people are maybe doing it twice because they need it. The drug courts are very busy; they are not lacking in anything to do.”

He condemned arguments “that criminal penalties need to be artificially inflated, higher than what is needed,” so they can be used as leverage to push suspects into plea bargains or drug court.

“That is a terrible policy decision,” Thompson said. “It just opens it to abuse, to unnecessarily destroy a life.”

Criminal justice policy should not “give one group leverage over another,” he said. “It should punish crime, reduce risk to public safety and rehabilitate.”

But another local prosecutor, Morgan County Attorney Jann Farris, described the JRI as “a train wreck.”

“My perception is there is not an incentive to do drug court,” he said Tuesday.

Under the JRI, a defendant who formerly might have faced a felony conviction and a prison term for a drug offense now finds it easier to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and do little or no jail time, while avoiding the rigor of drug court, Farris said.

“You pay your fine and keep on doing what you’re doing — drugs and other illegal offenses,” Farris said.

RELATED: Rising costs of new Utah state prison concern lawmakers

Farris also attacked the underlying premise of the JRI, saying it is a component of the state’s decision to close the Utah State Prison and allow commercial developments on the site.

He said the JRI was a "complete political maneuver by the governor. I felt the JRI was smoke and mirrors to develop some land down there (Draper)."

Farris said the governor "decided we were going to reduce prison beds by 30 percent" and that the resulting policies of the JRI have been "a total flop" for public safety.

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The Morgan attorney, a member of the Utah Prosecution Council, objected to any characterization of heavy-handed prosecutors.

“We always love to do something good to help someone,” he said. “Nothing good comes out of a long jail term.”

But he also sympathizes with a victim wondering why an offender “is not sitting in jail for stealing your snow blower.”

He blamed Herbert for the system changes, although the Legislature embraced the JRI as well.

"I expect more when someone is elected on the Republican ticket, to make conservative decisions,” Farris said. “He's the most liberal governor I've seen in recent history."

Efforts to contact the governor’s office were not immediately successful.

The JRI said it its annual report that the program's policies “are multifaceted and complex, with many still in need of sufficient time before the impact on Utah’s criminal justice system can be realized.”

Thompson said trends are being monitored and changes will be made as needed.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

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