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UT Reforms Successfully Reduced Prison Population, Data Shows

Under Utah's 2015 criminal justice reforms, the percentage of the prison population serving time for nonviolent offenses shrank from 40 percent to 32 percent. (Keith Allison/Flickr)
Under Utah's 2015 criminal justice reforms, the percentage of the prison population serving time for nonviolent offenses shrank from 40 percent to 32 percent. (Keith Allison/Flickr)
June 4, 2018

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah's prison population is now well below where it had been projected to be by this time, according to new data The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Researchers say a few key changes to law enforcement policy are saving the state millions of dollars in incarceration costs.

Pew's analysis found Utah's prison population dropped 9 percent from 2015 to 2017.

But just a few years earlier, the state's prison population had been increasing at a rate five times the national average.

Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, says it's clear the state's criminal justice reform law, passed in 2015, was successful at reversing the trend.

Gelb says one of the most effective changes the state made was re-categorizing certain nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

"This helps keep people out of expensive prison cells who don't present a threat to public safety, but it also prevents them from getting a felony conviction on their record, which has real long-term consequences for their ability to get jobs and housing and become self-sufficient," he states.

Gelb says the money Utah is saving by prioritizing prison space for serious, violent criminals is allowing the state to invest more in rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders.

Gelb stresses the changes Utah has made do not mean the state is letting criminals off the hook or encouraging crime by reducing punishment. In fact, the state's crime rate has dropped.

"It is very clear now from the experience over the last couple years in Utah, as well as over the past decade in states across the country, that we can reduce crime and imprisonment at the same time,” he states. “In fact, states that are reducing their imprisonment rates by the most are having bigger reductions in crime than states where prisons continue to grow."

Gelb says if Utah politicians follow through with efforts to keep the state's prison populations low, Utah taxpayers could save $500 million over 20 years.

Katherine Davis-Young, Public News Service - UT