Question we need to ask about Justice Reinvestment Initiative: Where’s the beef?

Question we need to ask about Justice Reinvestment Initiative: Where’s the beef?


Remember the famous Wendy’s commercial in which a feisty grandmother asks, “Where’s the beef?”

That’s the question all of us ought to be asking about the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).

JRI began in 2015 when, with plenty of fanfare, the Utah Legislature passed HB348.

The idea was to stem the growth of the prison population by using prison for serious and violent offenders.

Meanwhile, as a state website on JRI puts it, nonviolent offenders, most often people charged with possession of illegal drugs, were supposed to be “diverted to community-based treatment programs, allowing them to stay connected to jobs and support networks.”

At the time HB348 passed, there was talk of money, including funding that was going to be channeled through the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health for drug and alcohol treatment for offenders.

So what has happened?

We can say that 15 years ago when someone was arrested for drugs in Sanpete County, the person was sentenced, typically to fines and probation, and sent on his or her merry way with no mention of treatment.

Today, things are different, more because of county actions than JRI.

Sanpete County now has a deputy sheriff working as a county probation officer with certain drug and alcohol offenders. His case load is 55 people. With his support, some of his clients are racking up some significant clean time.

On its own, the county obtained a $65,000 federal grant, then added $16,000 in county funds, to create an addiction treatment program in jail. To participate, an inmate must expect to spend at least 90 days in jail, either before sentencing, in the form of a sentence, or through a combination of both.

The majority of people spending that kind of time in the Sanpete County Jail on drug-related or alcohol-related charges are participating in the program. Our county prosecutor, public defender and law enforcement leaders all say the fairly intensive program is making a difference for many participants.

But to put it all in perspective, consider that about 500 people per year are booked into the Sanpete  County Jail on drug or alcohol charges. Still others never go to jail. They receive citations and are adjudicated in municipal justice courts. At best, the county programs are reaching 25 percent of our citizens who need help with substance abuse.

One feature of HB348 was reducing sentences for drug crimes. A person now has to be arrested at least twice, in some cases three times, before a drug offense becomes a felony. Even then, the highest charge for simple possession is a third-degree felony. Very few people go to prison for third-degree felonies.

The results is that the Sanpete County Jail, and undoubtedly other county jails, are filling up with drug offenders. But the counties have no additional funds to cover the costs of local incarceration.

At the state level, under the umbrella of JRI, a lot of money has gone into writing rules; offering sentence reductions to people already in prison for completing programs that existed in the prisons before JRI was launched; writing standards for drug screening and treatment (as opposed to paying for treatment); and certifying treatment programs that existed before HB348 was passed,; not to mention paying PhDs to write annual reports on JRI.

We have to ask how many people could have been put into treatment programs, housing or jobs with the funds expended on regulatory and administrative work.

But back to the core goal of JRI: “Redirecting nonviolent offenders into community-based treatment enabling them to stay connected with their jobs and support networks.”

What lawmakers and state bureaucrats don’t fully grasp is that in Sanpete County, and surely in other rural counties, there are no community-based treatment programs that drug offenders can afford, there are no unskilled jobs that pay enough to cover basic living costs,  and often the only support networks are the drug friends the offenders had before they got caught. Too often, release back to the community means going back to “couch cruising” at those friends’ houses or apartment.

We call on the governor, Utah Legislature, Utah Department of Corrections and Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to put some beef in JRI. Or, to borrow a line often used in 12-Step group meetings, it’s time for the state to start walking the talk.