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With new laws, is Utah holding criminals accountable or adding to mass incarceration?

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Mar 12, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

Senates work at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on the last night of the legislative session, Friday, March 1, 2024.

From longer sentences for drunk drivers, to criminalizing “lewd” actions in public places, lawmakers passed 35 bills this session that either created a new criminal offense, expanded the definition of a current crime or enhanced existing penalties and fines.

Some lawmakers say it’s an attempt to hold criminals accountable and stop a “revolving door,” where perpetrators with a lengthy rap sheet are arrested and released prematurely, only to reoffend.

Others say it’s a knee-jerk reaction to concerns around crime, creating new offenses and enhancing penalties that will only increase the state’s incarcerated population and recidivism.

In 2015, the legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI, an attempt at criminal justice reform that reduced penalties for nonviolent offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor. That included drug crimes and theft, or incidents where there was a strong mental health component.

The JRI was based on research suggesting Utah’s jails would overflow if the state didn’t instead focus on treatment and rehabilitation — the more people go to jail, the more the state has to spend. Plus, for some crimes, increased penalties actually lead to higher rates of recidivism.

But according to Steve Burton, director of the Utah Defense Attorneys Association, the state never truly completed the JRI. Instead, the state reduced certain penalties, but never put enough funds into treatment and rehabilitation. And in the years since, the JRI has been criticized by some lawmakers and law enforcement.

“The perception from the law enforcement community was that JRI caused the problem because we were taking it too easy on criminal defendants,” Burton said.

That perception is still alive on Capitol Hill, Burton said. Data suggests overall crime, at least in Salt Lake City, is in decline — but since the JRI, there’s been what he calls a “one-way ratchet” in legislation addressing crime by increasing penalties. According to a report from the Utah Defense Attorneys Association, since the JRI passed in 2015, lawmakers have introduced 171 bills that created a new criminal offense, 85 of them passed.

In that same timeframe, just nine bills were introduced that repealed a criminal offense, with four of them passing.

Though not as lopsided, lawmakers have followed that same trend with increasing penalties for crimes, whether upping a fine or mandating longer sentences. Since the 2015 legislative session, there have been 110 bills introduced that would increase penalties, with 70 passing.

Meanwhile, 44 bills reducing penalties were introduced, 30 of them passing.

Of the 27 bills introduced this session creating a new criminal offense, lawmakers passed 15:

  • HB211 penalizes anyone who falsely tells police they ingested drugs before an arrest.
  • HB156 makes damaging or disabling internet, phone or electricity services in the act of a burglary a crime called “interruption of a connected service.”
  • HB225 creates an offense called “unlawful kissing of a minor,” punishable by a class A misdemeanor or in some cases, a 3rd degree felony.
  • SB235 imposes a misdemeanor on anyone operating a railroad who fails to report injured or killed livestock.
  • HB52 would impose a “fine of not more than $5,000 for a person who sells a cannabinoid product that is not registered” by the state.
  • HB257, which restricts transgender access to some bathrooms, “enacts a criminal offense for loitering in a restroom, shower, or locker room where the general public has an expectation of privacy.”
  • HB276 would create a criminal penalty “for unauthorized use or distribution of an investigative report.”
  • HB366 moves “aggravated escape” — defined as using a weapon or causing injury while escaping official custody — to its own statute.
  • HB478 criminalizes violations of the state’s animal care requirements.
  • HB531 expands the definition of “unlawful use of a laser pointer” to include harming occupants of a moving vehicle or “an aircraft or the occupants of an aircraft.”
  • HB537 criminalizes the sale, import or installation of a “counterfeit or nonfunctional airbag” in a vehicle.
  • SB95 is a lengthy recodification bill, meaning it rearranges state code. It includes a line making it illegal for a parent or guardian to consent that a minor “enter into a marriage prohibited by law.”
  • SB104 creates a criminal offense for anyone who disables a content filter on a device belonging to a minor.
  • SB179 prohibits the storage of flammable or explosive materials “directly beneath a bridge, overpass, viaduct, or tunnel owned or operated by a highway authority or large public transit district.”
  • HB245 makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate or deprive an employee of benefits because of their status in the armed forces.

In 2019, lawmakers passed 18 bills creating new criminal offenses, the most of any session since the JRI, according to data compiled by the Utah Defense Attorneys Association. This past session was a close second.

In 2024 lawmakers also passed 12 bills increasing penalties for certain crimes, including lewdness in front of a child, making false threats to public schools and impaired driving. Eight additional bills expanded the definition of a current criminal offense.

Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, says there’s a general sentiment among lawmakers that the “pendulum has swung too far to a lack of accountability for criminals.” This session, he said, the legislature tried to push back.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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