By CHPD Chief Robby Russo
In 2014, the Utah Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which promised to reduce prison and jail overcrowding for those affected by substance abuse and mental illness. The approach was to use evidence-based data to target individuals who shouldn’t be locked up for being mentally ill or drug addicts and funnel them into treatment programs.
The initiative seeks to make sentencing more fair and increase opportunities for treatment to reduce stress on bulging prisons and jails. It also reduces the penalties for certain drug crimes. In theory, law enforcement would bring people to jail where mental health and substance professionals would screen them and keep violent offenders in jail while deferring others into treatment programs.
Although law enforcement lobbied against the legislation, this seemed like a great idea with proponents touting, “We are not getting soft on crime but getting tough on criminals.” The problem came when the Medicaid expansion and Healthy Utah plans failed, which would have funded the program. If the Legislature would have passed Medicaid expansion or Healthy Utah, many more people currently in jail would be eligible for coverage. In fact, Medicaid expansion in the Salt Lake County Jail alone would go from approximately 20 percent being Medicaid eligible to 87 percent Medicaid eligible.
Utah's JRI doesn’t work as it was intended, and has created more crime without sufficient funding for mental health treatment and drug rehab for offenders. One of the key components of JRI was to reclassify drug offenses for heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine to misdemeanors, thus making it a county problem instead of a state issue.
Since the imposition of the legislation, the Salt Lake County jail has imposed misdemeanor booking restrictions, which means prisoners are refused at the door. Prior to JRI, the jail turned away 625 misdemeanor prisoners a year. Last year, the jail refused 7,900 people at the door, leaving criminals to roam free.
That number doesn’t even accurately represent the problem, since law enforcement realizes defendants will be refused on misdemeanor charges. Police departments are not willing to expend the resources when offender are simply turned away. Consequently, crime goes up and arrests go down.
This is mainly a Salt Lake County problem, since the county jail houses more than 40 percent of the offender population. Other counties are still accepting misdemeanor prisoners, but the state and the JRI have effectively de-criminalized hard illicit drugs in the midst of an upward-trending opiate/opioid epidemic. If officers can’t book offenders, or serve a subsequent warrant after the defendant fails to appear, there are no consequences.
It’s difficult to assign the targeted population to programs where no funding exists, but if the vulnerable population we want to put in alternative programs can’t be assessed, how effective is the program? It leaves one to wonder what happens when we let criminals go virtually unchallenged. Offenders often escalate their behavior, which is evidenced in the higher crime rates for 2016.
What does this look like in Cottonwood Heights? You may remember the panhandler on the I-215/Highland Drive off-ramp. After receiving numerous complaints, officers attempted to arrest the man and get him into mental health and substance programs, yet we couldn’t get him into jail. After several attempts and charges, the man eventually overdosed and died.
Another man, a sexual predator who lives in our city has been charged with forcible (misdemeanor) sexual abuse for stalking and performing lewd acts directed at professional women in our community. We have attempted booking him, only to be turned away because of jail restrictions caused by JRI. He will more than likely remain in the neighborhood until he escalates his behavior into a felony.
During the holidays, we had a lot of package thefts from porches committed by offenders later arrested for felony crimes. Ironically, they were already wanted on misdemeanor crimes the jail wouldn’t take.
The JRI, although well intended, has failed, and I would argue it has made our community more dangerous. The 2017 Legislature will have some difficult challenges this session as they consider options and alternatives. I’m afraid the problem will continue to grow without some action by the 2017 Legislature, and I encourage them to look closely at their options.