SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An effort to reduce the number of people on probation and parole is gaining widespread popularity in deeply conservative Utah.
State officials say the steadily growing ranks of people under state supervision stretches agency resources and saddles offenders with burdensome restrictions that, when violated, become pipelines to prison.
“We have a problem of mass incarceration,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat. “Some of the methodologies and procedures, although that may not be our intention, end up contributing to that element of mass incarceration.”
This month, Gill and other state officials joined prosecutors from 20 other states — many of them liberal — and the District of Columbia in calling for probation and parole to be used more sparingly and only for offenders who seem to require it.
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Earlier this year, the overwhelmingly Republican state Legislature demanded new guidelines for probation and parole and eliminated mandatory parole for some charges.
Supporters say the focus is an extension of wide-ranging criminal justice reforms lawmakers approved in 2015 intending to keep more than 2,500 people out of prison and save $542 million over 20 years. At the time, the state’s prison population was growing at six times the national rate.
A state commission reported last year Utah was on target to meet its goal without hurting public safety.
“Ninety-five percent of the population that’s incarcerated is going to return to our community,” James Hudspeth said, the director of Utah’s probation and parole office who joined Gill in calling for reform, using Justice Department figures. “So what are we doing to prepare those inmates to return to our communities? That’s where we feel our resources are better used.”
Leighann Marsh, 48, says her story is evidence of the benefit of those methods.
She faced multiple drug and fraud charges before she was arrested in 2010, according to court records. Marsh says she had been addicted to methamphetamine for six years after getting hooked on prescription painkillers.
But after the 2010 arrest she spent two years in drug court, which requires addicts to undergo a court-supervised treatment and counseling program in exchange for dismissing charges. Marsh credits it with getting her off drugs and keeping her sober.
“If you think about it, being booked and released, you still have an addiction,” she said. “All it does is put a Band-Aid on a situation that has an infection in the wound. It doesn’t help. What helps is having treatment, being able to work through situations that you may not know how to.”
Marsh is currently studying for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Utah and working as a case manager for a nearby treatment center.
The new focus has met minimal opposition.
Nathan Evershed, a Republican prosecutor running to replace Gill, told The Associated Press he agrees with the effort’s goals. The Legislature’s vote for reforms this year was unanimous.
Nationwide, more than 4.5 million people — or roughly one of every 55 adults — were under some sort of supervision at the end of 2016, according to the Justice Department. Roughly one-third as many people were in state and federal prison.
That marks a 1 percent decrease from the end of 2015 and a 12 percent drop from peak of 5.1 million under supervision in 2007.
The trend in Utah has been going in the opposite direction.
From fiscal years 2014 to 2017 the total number of people in parole and probation increased by more than 1,300, or about 9 percent, according to the state’s criminal justice commission.
Instead of probation or parole, Hudspeth suggested offenders be directed to programs such as court-supervised probation, which require offenders to report regularly at court but don’t rely on a probation officer, or else state-funded drug and mental health treatment.