In 2014, Utah passed landmark legislation known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). Its goal was twofold: stem the rising cost of housing our incarcerated population by moving low-level drug offenders from prison or jail to community supervision, and take the savings from lower incarceration and invest them into treatment programs that rehabilitate offenders, therefore decreasing crime rates.
Now, six years later and contrary to JRI’s objective, recidivism has increased by 8%. This is not an indictment of the legislation. Only one-fifth of the original plan has been implemented, leaving out the very measures that were meant to drive down repeat offenses. To realize a more effective criminal justice system, the Legislature and relevant stakeholders must work together to fully implement each element of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
Upon the enactment of JRI in 2015, sentencing guidelines were in fact changed that put more low level drug offenders on community supervision rather than behind bars. This decreased Utah’s prison population, an achievement that should be celebrated. Unfortunately, this is largely as far as implementation of the legislation went.
Funding beyond nominal increases for treatment was not provided until 2017 with the passage of the Targeted Adult Medicaid Program. The results of this increase remain to be seen, but full implementation requires much more than simply providing funding.
A recent audit conducted by the Legislative Auditor’s Office identified a severe lack of data collection within the Utah criminal justice system, as well as probed into the quality of treatment that drug offenders receive in public rehabilitation programs.
One of JRI’s defining benefits was its goal to make Utah’s justice system “data-driven and results-oriented.” It is a wonder that this had not been the standard in the decades that preceded JRI, but it is a welcomed change nonetheless. The audit found that many justice-related agencies “are not gathering the basic client information they need to track recidivism.”
Further, the audit indicated serious doubt as to the effectiveness of the rehabilitation programs to which offenders are sent as an alternative to incarceration. Auditors specifically noted a lack of adherence to “evidence-based standards” and fidelity to course content for those going through rehabilitation programming. This comes in addition to, again, a lack of performance data needed to track if the programs are actually reforming the behaviors of offenders to decrease the likelihood that they will commit another crime.
In short, we do not know if state-funded drug rehabilitation programs are working to help reform those with criminal behaviors. If the increase in drug users who re-offend is any indicator, there is certainly room for improvement.
We often forget that the criminal justice system is not one, lone system. It is multiple systems all working on different parts of the criminal justice pipeline — there are city police departments; county sheriffs; municipal, state and federal courts; the Department of Corrections; mental health agencies; commissions; and more.
Each one of these “micro-systems” operate as a “data silo,” meaning that any information they collect on their own activities largely remains internal and is not readily shared with partners or other stakeholders in the wider criminal justice system. This means that criminal justice agencies are not being held accountable because they cannot be. There are no uniform metrics by which to measure success. If there were such metrics, the data needed to determine if success is being achieved is insufficient.
Agencies need to be held accountable for collecting and reporting data. We need to make it clear what needs to be reported and make it easy to do so. Ultimately, it is the Legislature’s responsibility to ensure that these items are implemented. It is critical that Utah establish a statewide information sharing ecosystem with uniform standards of reporting required for all justice related entities if we are to achieve a truly data-driven, results-oriented justice system that can serve as a model for the nation.
Chris Harelson is the executive director of Prosperity Utah.