Northern Utah Community Correctional Center

The Northern Utah Community Correctional Center provides housing and services for parolees transitioning out of incarceration in Ogden.

SALT LAKE CITY — A new state task force will try to unlock the puzzle of criminal justice system changes that are counterintuitively increasing Utah’s prison population.

In 2018, 82% of prison admissions were due to probation or parole violations, a more than 15% boost since 2012.

Many offenders are being sent back to prison for technical violations of probation or parole, rather than new crimes.

“What was intended to be an alternative to incarceration, probation and parole have become its leading drivers,” Gov. Gary Herbert’s office said in a news release announcing formation of the task force.

Reforms in 2015 that reduced penalties for drug possession and cut down on prison sentences led to increases in the number of offenders on probation. In the first 18 months after the reforms, Utah’s prison population fell.

But since then, probation and parole violations have climbed and more of the supervised offenders are ending up incarcerated.

Meager availability of substance abuse treatment for those on probation and parole means more people are failing. Plus, parole and probation staffs are overworked.

This all adds up to a problem that needs intervention, the governor said.

The task force aims to increase successful outcomes for offenders, reduce revocations due to technical violations, and focus supervision resources on individuals who pose the highest risk, the news release said.

Prison admissions are to be reserved for “serious offenders,” it said.

The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is spearheading the task force, which will develop recommendations for the 2020 Legislature.

“Probation and parole are meant to hold individuals accountable and help them successfully exit the criminal justice system, not become a revolving door back to prison,” Mike Haddon, Department of Corrections executive director, said in the news release.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is providing technical assistance to the task force, recently issued a report on the effectiveness of probation and parole processes.

“In Utah, 70 percent of people on supervision said that incentives as simple as verbal praise and recognition motivated them to improve their behavior,” the report said.

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah in 2018 said Utah could cut its prison population by half and save $250 million by implementing a series of changes on a range of justice system elements, such as sentencing and crime classifications.

One key recommendation: Eliminate incarceration as an option for technical violations of parole or probation.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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