Criminal justice reform in Utah appears linked to a new state prison

Posted at 3:00 PM, Feb 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-09 19:40:04-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Department of Corrections unveiled some bold new initiatives in its budget, tied to plans to alter the criminal justice system.

At a budget presentation on Monday, corrections officials sought funding for new ideas as part of a push for criminal justice reforms in Utah. State corrections director Rollin Cook told lawmakers "we're all in" on the reforms.

Read the budget presentation here:

The proposed criminal justice reforms include ideas to make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony and alternatives to incarceration.

"We’re over incarcerating. We’re putting people behind bars that are drug offenders and mentally ill," Cook said in an interview with FOX 13. "We know we’ve got to do a better job in figuring out how we can manage those populations, how can we help them be better when we get them into the community."

Plans for criminal justice reform are gaining more attention -- when coupled with the idea of moving the state prison.

"This is a big deal," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns. "This is epic and it will allow us to have a really meaningful conversation on changing the whole system, which prior to having discussions about moving the prison just couldn’t get any traction at all."

Hutchings said many of the proposed reforms could not be accomplished without a new facility. But other lawmakers are not so convinced. Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, has proposed a bill that could allow for the prison to stay where it is now, in Draper.

"We don’t need a whole new site and a whole new 500 million dollar prison," he said Monday, adding that his fellow lawmakers were not listening to the public.

But others said the issue of moving the prison has been looked at multiple times, and it is time for it to move.

"First and foremost, the question was if we needed a new prison and the answer is emphatically, 'yes,'" said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. "Secondly, can we rebuild it where it is? The answer is no."

The Prison Relocation Commission has been studying several sites across the Wasatch Front. Plans to move the prison have been met with public backlash.

Numerous lawmakers and stakeholders that FOX 13 has spoken with believe a site off I-80 near 7200 West is the preferred location, but the commission has made no final decisions. A meeting is slated for later this month.

"There are a lot of reforms that we could do without moving the prison," said Hutchings. "But to be honest with you, there are so many things that need to be done differently, and a lot of it requires a different facility."

Rep. Hutchings said he anticipates unveiling criminal justice system reform bills in the coming days.