Justice Initiative brings changes, but initial vision not yet realized

The Utah Justice Reinvestment Initiative has significantly impacted the way drug-related criminal cases are handled in Sanpete County, but authorities say the program has a long way to go before its working the way it should be.
The Utah Justice Reinvestment Initiative has significantly impacted the way drug-related criminal cases are handled in Sanpete County, but authorities say the program has a long way to go before its working the way it should be.

Justice Initiative brings changes, but initial vision not yet realized


James Tilson

Staff writer



MANTI—The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a measure passed by the Utah Legislature aimed at stemming the growth of the prison population, became effective Oct. 1, 2015.

The law, which attracted a lot of news coverage at the time it was being considered, is part of a national movement promoted by the Pew Charitable Trust primarily aimed at keeping people convicted of drug possession out of prison and directing them into treatment instead.

More than 20 other states have set up justice reinvestment programs. Some related legislation and programs are also in play at the federal level.

One of the main features of JRI has been to reduce the charges for drug offenses. Many offenses that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors. As such, they can be punishable by fines and jail terms, but generally, addicts no longer go to prison unless they rack up three to four offenses.

Meanwhile, the intent of JRI, to provide treatment to everybody convicted of drug crimes just hasn’t been realized, Keisel says. “The act went into place with promises to fund treatment,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”

Nonetheless, JRI has caused Sanpete County to turn a corner in the way it handles drug crimes. Because of the initiative, the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office has appointed the first county-level probation officer. Deputy Jeff Greenwell was appointed to the position full-time in June 2016. Before that, he was a patrol officer for the Sheriff’s Office for 20 years.

“After 20 years of trying to put people in jail, now I’m trying to keep them out,” Greenwell said.      Greenwell supervises 55 probationers from three county-level programs: drug court, supervised probation and pretrial release. Although he has only been in his role for six months, he has already seen a difference.

He has a few people who have been in the program for almost its entire existence. They have spent five months “totally clean—remarkable,”  he said. “I’m seeing changes in a lot of people, and it’s making this job worthwhile.”

Deputy Greenwell’s position is funded with state JRI money. And Sanpete County has been lucky enough to get a federal grant from a program called “Residential Substance Abuse Treatment” (RSAT).  The grant has enabled the county to set up a substance abuse treatment program based at the  Sanpete County Jail.

Federal funds cover the pay for Tonia Castro, the county’s substance abuse and dependency counselor, as well as all materials and equipment used in the treatment program.

Under the supervision of a licensed therapist, Castro teaches drug and alcohol-specific classes, as well as ways to change “criminal-centric” thinking, to jail inmates who qualify to participate.

RSAT is a program that requires a minimum of 90 days in custody to complete. It is a combination of cognitive behavior treatment (CBT) and a 12-step program for substance abuse. According to Castro, the goal of CBT is to “get (addicts) to slow down and think things through.”

She says most addicts started using when they were teenagers and did not have the opportunity to learn good decision-making habits.

The substance abuse program has three levels. “Level One” is the introduction, and the first three steps of the program. What is addiction?  What drugs do to your body?  How do the drugs affect your body longterm?

“Level Two” has steps 4 through 7 and focuses on the self, including the mind, body and value system. It is more internal, says Castro.

“Level Three” works on relapse prevention and aftercare planning. What are you going to do when you leave custody?  Where are you going to live?  How are you going to get insurance?  At this point, the probation officer steps in and begins to help with after-custody planning.

There is widespread agreement that the RSAT program has been effective. Keisel and Greenwell both see increased success in people going on county-supervised probation.

David Angerhofer, the public defender for Sanpete County clients, calls RSAT the “last best hope” for many of his clients and notes that there are very few in-patient treatment options for drug addicts in Sanpete County. “I’m glad [it’s] in existence.”  The JRI and RSAT programs are a “tremendous step in the right direction. This gets down to the root of the behavior.”

Castro notes that having the program in the jail provides extra benefits.

“They’re here, and they are clean,” Castro said. “Because the clients are all in jail together, essentially in the same boat, they support each other. They’ve become like a community. They do it all together. It’s a built-in support group.”

Jail officers have fewer behavior problems from the program members because participants do not want to be kicked out of the program.

“Most drug addicts don’t want to be drug addicts,” Castro said. “They really suck in this program. I’ve yet to have anyone quit. They love being in the program.”

The problem is that the RSAT program is a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t touch people convicted of a first offense who don’t go to jail or go for just a few days. If those users are to get treatment, they or their families have to pay for private programs, and relatively few individuals or families in Sanpete County can afford it, Keisel says.

When the JRI was enacted, it was supposed to be funded from other sources (most notably the proposed expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, or “ObamaCare”) to offset the cost of the mandated counseling. Medicaid was not expanded in Utah, however, and the funding for JRI has lagged.

Angerhofer says JRI is a wonderful program—if it gets fully funded. “If it actually finally kicks in, it will make my job easier.”  As it is now, though, he has clients who should qualify for drug treatment under the statute but cannot get into any program for lack of space.

Before passage of JRI, simple possession of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and ecstasy was a third-degree felony. If a person got caught in a drug-free zone (within 1,000 feet of a school, church, daycare facility or public parking lot), or if an arrest was a repeat offense, the charge was bumped up to a maximum of a second-degree felony.

Now, the first offense for higher-level drugs is a Class A misdemeanor. Drug-free zones now only extend only 100 feet around schools, churches, etc.., and charges for possession in a drug-free zone area only bump up to third-degree felonies if the school, church, etc. is in operation at the time of arrest.

If there are no drug-free zone considerations, drug possession remains a misdemeanor until the third conviction, when it goes up to a third-degree felony. Under the new law, that’s the stiffest charge for possession.  (There continue to be stiffer charges, up to a first-degree felony, for drug distribution.)

Meanwhile, possession of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor for the first offense. That’s the same level of charge that was in place before JRI. But now, marijuana charges don’t get bumped up to a third-degree felony until the fourth offense.

Keisel says he recently attended a meeting of a state panel charged with oversight over the justice system’s handling of certain drug-related crimes. A defense attorney at the meeting complained that JRI may be compounding rather than solving the drug problem because by the time addicts get arrested multiple times, which often leads to required treatment, they are deeper into their addictions than in the past.

As for the impact on jails, “it’s been drastic,” Keisel said. With more people being sentenced to jail and fewer to state prisons, “local populations in all the jails statewide are blossoming.” Yet counties, particularly rural counties like Sanpete, have far less money than the state to cover incarceration costs.

In 2008, Sanpete County, borrowed $12 million in order to build a high-quality jail. The jail contained more cells than the county felt it needed right away. The idea was that the state would place some of its overflow prison inmates in the jail. Plans called for state payments for some of those inmates to help cover the debt payments.

Now the jail is frequently near capacity with inmates the county has to finance. With relatively fewer people going to prison, the state is placing fewer inmates in the county jail, and state payments are going down.

In the end, no one knows how JRI will play out. Sanpete County has only had a probation officer for six months, and very few participants have finished the programs the county now offers. “There is progress being made, but it is almost too early to tell.”

“The last chapter’s still out” on JRI, Keisel says.