Drug crimes would drop under new criminal justice system reform bill in the Utah legislature

Posted at 7:03 AM, Feb 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-18 23:54:07-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A massive criminal justice system bill has been unveiled on Utah's Capitol Hill, proposing some sweeping changes to the criminal justice system.

House Bill 348, sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, would overhaul large portions of the justice system. Most notably, it would drop simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor (except on repeat convictions); and provide more funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

From the bill:

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 6.43.50 AM

Hutchings and Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, unveiled the bill at a news conference on Wednesday. Rep. Hutchings called his bill an "epic shift" in how Utah deals with criminals, pushing more treatment for drug offenders.

"Very clearly, treatment is a better process than incarceration," Sen. Adams told reporters.

FOX 13 first reported last year on the idea being considered that would drop Utah's drug possession law from a third-degree felony to a class A misdemeanor. Rep. Hutchings' bill does just that, but also reduces other crimes (while enhancing the penalties in others, such as weapons violations). Drug distribution would be dropped, although he insisted drug trafficking would still be harshly punished.

A large portion of the bill is dedicated to reducing recidivism in Utah's prisons, even as lawmakers consider relocating the Utah State Prison from its site at Point of the Mountain. In interviews with FOX 13, corrections officials and Rep. Hutchings have acknowledged the reform proposal is closely tied with prison relocation.

The bill had the support of Rollin Cook, the director of Utah's Dept. of Corrections.

"For too long, we've been the hand that holds them down," he said Wednesday. "We need to be the hand that helps them up."

Conservative lawmakers have started to embrace the concepts as they struggle with criminal justice system funding and prison relocation. Activist groups have praised the concepts in the bill, even as some have declared it "a start." Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union stood with lawmakers in support of the bill.

One thing has been left off of HB348. Ron Gordon, the executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, told FOX 13 that a plan to drop many traffic offenses from misdemeanors to infractions is not included. It may be included in a new bill or a substitute bill.

More on FOX 13 News and throughout the day...