Utah commission approves proposals, including making drug possession a misdemeanor

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A commission has approved a sweeping series of criminal justice reforms, including a proposal to make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

The proposal passed the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice unanimously on Wednesday. It would include changes for how people are charged, convicted, sentenced and paroled.

FOX 13 first reported in October that one of the biggest changes would be to reduce simple drug possession from a third-degree felony to a class A misdemeanor. The idea was opposed by a coalition of prosecutors, who spoke out against it on Wednesday. They argued that it removed their ability to plea bargain, and the threat of prison time was an incentive to get people into treatment.

"There's no threat of punishment, if you will," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. "That's a practical issue. The concern is, is this going to have a long-term collateral impact?"

But others, including the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole and some state lawmakers, supported the idea. The Utah Department of Corrections and the Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court also supports the reforms.

"Being tough doesn't necessarily mean we're being smart," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns. "Sometimes being tough just makes a tougher criminal and our intention is to change and we have to be focused on having a safer community and not just locking people up and pretending they're not there."

Supporters have argued that with prison overcrowding, Utah could better spend taxpayer dollars supporting rehabilitation efforts. CCJJ's study found that the state is spending as much as $1 billion for a new prison, with half the cost dealing with inmate growth.

CCJJ Director Ron Gordon said the recommended reforms could avert as much as 98 percent of that projected growth, if adopted.

Utah taxpayers could save as much as a half-billion dollars over 20 years with criminal justice reforms, the study claims. It's money that supporters say could be better spent on treatment and rehabilitation.

"It's going to make a difference in terms of what kind of resources and things we can do for those who are in treatment and be able to reduce the recidivism rate," said Spencer Larsen with Odyssey House, a substance abuse treatment center.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Governor Gary Herbert expressed his support for the reforms. However, he stopped short of endorsing any changes to Utah's drug laws, saying he wanted to study the issue further.

"At the end of the day, we want the same results," the governor said. "It's not just a matter of warehousing people. It's a matter of getting them fixed."

Read the proposed reforms here:

11 comments

  • Bob

    Intelligent people don’t even take medicines they don’t need. Why then would anybody want to screw up their brains with mind altering illegal pharmaceuticals?

  • bob

    We have to have a “curtain” for alcohol, but drug addicts can get off easier… LDS Logic.. I mean, you have to protect those BYU Meth makers…

  • Indira Gutierrez

    The purpose of punishing someone for a crime is to deter them from committing that same crime again. Short of executing that individual, they WILL return to our communities, and if when they do, we make it more difficult for these people to clean up their act and become a productive and contributing member of society then what have we really accomplished?

    When someone has a felony on their record as opposed to a misdemeanor they are restricted on not only where they can live, but it also excludes them from receiving funding for school and also keeps them from finding work. Even if they want to get their act together a felony conviction only makes it that much harder.

    Generally individuals with a drug felony on their record are extremely disadvantaged to begin with, (not much of an education, no role models, no skills, already in poverty -which is probably why they got into drugs in the first place). Not equipped with the skills necessary to find a job, further hindered by a criminal record, these folks can easily return to the life of crime they have always know. After a felony conviction, funding for higher education through the federal government is out of the question, so are many government programs which might aid them in their transition back into society- and if our aim is to make them self sufficient, a felony conviction makes it very difficult to find work. A drug felony subjects people to a life of perpetual poverty and struggle, and it’s generational, their children will witness this life and continue to live this cycle.

    If we truly want reform, if we truly want to fix this issue we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. We should treat drug offenses as the public health issue that it is. I agree that there is a place for punishment when someone has committed a crime, even a drug offense however I believe that treatment should be an integral, if not focal part of our approach. If we equip people with the vocational skills that they need to become productive, contributing members society and over come their addictions, we will succeed. We all have the same goals, to clean up our streets of drugs, to have happy healthy communities. So lets do it. There is an overwhelming shortage of technical skill in America. If we had vocational programs, focused on training people to fill these desperately needed positions we wouldn’t have a “felon” or “drug offender” when they get out, we’d have a nurse, a mechanic, a HVAC tech. The sky’s the limit. Lets take the blinders off and stop thinking things have to be the way they have always been just because they have always been that way. Collectively we can change things for the better.

    • Todd

      “Generally individuals with a drug felony on their record are extremely disadvantaged to begin with, (not much of an education, no role models, no skills, already in poverty -which is probably why they got into drugs in the first place). Not equipped with the skills necessary to find a job, further hindered by a criminal record, these folks can easily return to the life of crime they have always know” DIDN’T PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH HAVE PROBLEMS WITH COCAINE AND ALCOHOL??? I THINK HE CAME FROM A PRETTY AFFLUENT AND RELIGIOUS FAMILY. IT IS REALLY SAD THAT YOU LUMP ALL PEOPLE INTO THAT CATEGORY.

  • Trish Ramirez

    This is a great idea, although it would undoubtedly be most effective had it been paired with some kind of mandatory drug court probationary period – but I would imagine that the judges in the state will include this kind of mandate in sentencing even for class A misdemeanors.

    Possessing a small amount of a drug, particularly marijuana, shouldn’t cost someone all of the opportunities for the rest of their life, which is often what happens when you are convicted of a felony.

    On the same token, some drugs (like heroin and meth and prescription opiates) don’t require a very large quantity to do a lot of damage, to be split between a few people or sold etc. The State will have to be very careful what it deems a ‘small quantity’ if it wants to ensure that these problems don’t explode further than they already have in Utah – which would be pretty difficult at this point considering how rampant they already are.

    But perhaps by NOT focusing on the low-level users and buyers, the State of Utah can redirect some resources towards snuffing out the high-level manufacturers, importers and bid sellers. Do some work on the I-15 corridor, etc. Watch some of the inexplicably successful local businesses that are nothing but money-laundering and importing fronts, work of that nature that may make it much more difficult for residents to get their hands on these ‘small quantities’ in the first place.

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