Legislative special session to weigh pretrial process reforms

State lawmakers will consider making changes to Utah's Justice Reinvestment Initiative during a special session of the Legislature starting Tuesday.

SALT LAKE CITY – When Utah lawmakers gather in Salt Lake City Tuesday, one of the issues they will discuss is the possibility of making changes to Utah’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).

Lawyers in the Cache County Attorney’s Office agree that discussion is long overdue.

In his proclamation summoning lawmakers to a special session of Legislature, Gov. Spencer Cox specified that they should consider making changes the state’s current pretrial processes relating to “bail, pretrial release and indigent defense.”

During interviews with members of the Cache County Council in August, three members of the county’s legal staff all agreed that JRI reform is needed. They were County Attorney John Luthy and prosecutors Jacob Gordon and Dane Murray.

Of the three, Luthy is the least critical of JRI. But he does disagree with portions of JRI that allow individuals charged with driving under the influence to immediately be released on bail.

That’s particularly inappropriate, Luthy added, when the DUI involves serious injuries or deaths.

When state lawmakers passed legislation establishing the JRI in 2014, their goal was to reduce Utah’s prison population and increase drug treatment programs.

Advocates of the initiative argued that cost-savings would result from moving low-level drug offenders from incarceration to community supervision. Those savings could then be re-allocated to drug treatment programs that would rehabilitate offenders and reduce crime rates.

But recent studies have found that recidivism among drug offenders has actually increased by 8 percent since JRI was implemented and that its reduced sentencing guidelines have put many of the wrong people back on Utah’s streets.

After 12 years as a prosecutor here, Gordon argued that JRI protocols actually hamper statewide drug rehabilitation efforts.

“I agree with its emphasis placed on rehabilitation and counseling,” he explained. “When I was serving in the drug court, that was the single most effective tool we had to rehabilitate drug addicts and help them lead better lives.”

But JRI also lowered the severity of drug charges and gave drug offenders the option of accepting 30 days in jail rather than two years in drug court.

“Drug rehabilitation isn’t an overnight process and getting people to participate in drug court was really difficult after JRI was enacted,” according to Gordon.

County attorneys have been fighting the JRI reforms ever since they were enacted, said Murray, particularly those involving sentencing guidelines, liberal bail policies and lax collection of restitution for victims.

In a recent second-degree child abuse case, for example, the JRI sentencing matrix recommended a minimal 90-day jail term followed by probation because the defendant had no previous criminal history.

”That’s unacceptable to me,” he emphasized. “It’s something that I think we need to be putting pressure on the Legislature to change.”

Other hot topics outlined by the governor for the second special session of the 64th Legislature include congressional and legislative redistricting; renaming Dixie State University; and refining state statutes related to COVID-19 and the workplace.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!

1 Comment

  • Bo November 9, 2021 at 9:03 am Reply

    About time they revisit this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.