Salt Lake City and the rest of Utah has some of most overpopulated prisons in the U.S., but recent prison reforms are changing things. Federal prisons, State prisons, and local jails—once crowded with inmates—have reduced their prison population by 18 percent.

Less Punishment for Non-Violent Crimes

Legislation allowing judges more information regarding a defendant’s history of violence and flight have allowed judges to make more accurate decisions regarding bail. Non-violent defendants can receive lower bail amounts, making it possible for them to pay the bond directly or through the services of a bail bondsman and avoid incarceration. Some defendants were even released on their own recognizance or into the custody of their parents or other relatives. The new legislation allowed judges to be more lenient on non-violent first offenders and resort to jail time only on the more dangerous defendants.

This has dropped the prison population of non-violent inmates from 40 percent to 32 percent and decreased the overall prison population by 9 percent. Judges can also set alternative sentences instead of prison incarceration. These alternative sentences can involve treatment in a rehabilitation facility, community service, or residential confinement.

Bail, Pre-trial Inmates, and Incarceration

Almost half of Utah’s prison inmates are still awaiting trial and are still presumed to be innocent. The inability or unwillingness to pay exorbitant bail amounts have forced even non-violent offenders into incarceration. Defendants who are impoverished or suffering from substance abuse problems are either unaware or incapable of acquiring the services of bail guarantors—much less pay the full amount of their bail.

Though there have been recent changes that have remedied this situation, hundreds of inmates, previously incarcerated for minor offenses, still await the start of their trials. Incarceration can be dangerous, especially for pre-trial inmates. Seventy-five percent of prison deaths in Davis and Weber County Jails were pre-trial detainees. Substance withdrawal problems accounted for 25 percent of these deaths and suicide, illnesses, and so-called accidents were some of the other reported reasons.

Substance Abuse and Prisons

a prisoner in jail

Utah has one of the toughest stances against substance abuse and one of the highest incarceration rates for possession of illegal substances. Incarceration can prove dangerous—and even fatal—to detainees with substance abuse problems. Prisons do not have the resources, whether medication or personnel, to treat and observe detainees for 24 hours.

The recently passed Criminal Justice Reform bill, signed by President Trump with bi-partisan support, aims to lower penalties for non-violent crimes including drug-related violations. Utah has already passed similar reforms, cutting down prison time for drug possession by almost half. The number of people admitted to substance abuse treatment centers instead of prisons rose by 20 percent, and residential treatment rose by 29 percent.

Utah seeks to limit prisons to serious violent crimes and legislation have been made to do precisely just that. Judges are setting lower bail, that while still high can now easily be covered by bail bondsmen. Harsh punishment is reserved for violent offenses, and petty crimes and drug violations can now warrant a second chance.