Welcome to the 2015 Utah Legislative Session, everyone! The Session officially kicked off yesterday, mainly with ceremonies and networking. And this first week will see mostly appropriations meetings (budgets for various agencies will be presented), with some committee meetings in the afternoons. This creates a relatively slow, not-so-insane start to the 45-day session. For those of you who like to follow the legislative process, here are some “Criminal Justice Bills to Watch!,” which could have a positive OR negative impact on our criminal justice system. You can always track the progress of these bills by going to le.utah.gov, the state legislative website.
As a disclaimer, I should remind you that this is by NO MEANS an exhaustive list. There are many conversations occurring up here about different aspects of our system – and plenty of bills that seek to add more laws and rules and penalties to the state code with each passing day. These are just some of the bills that I and others are following, as they have a potentially significant impact on key parts of our criminal justice system in Utah. There is a lot of other good work – and some not so great work… – being done by Utah lawmakers and public administrators.
Today’s issues will include some really controversial ones – the ACLU of Utah doesn’t necessarily have a position on all of them, but they all definitely impact some part of the criminal justice pipeline. Some may cause more smoke than fire, while other really critical issues will go unaddressed.
CCJJ’s Justice Reinvestment Legislation
Also known as “Criminal Justice Amendments,” sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams and Rep. Eric Hutchings. The bill is not yet numbered – the office of Legislative Research and General Counsel is still working on the language. Those 18 recommendations from CCJJ touch on MANY different parts of Utah law, so this bill is going to be LOOOOONG! I’ll let you know as soon as the language is available and the bill is officially introduced. This is the big one, people – and if you feel, as the ACLU does, that this a very important step in the right direction for Utah’s criminal justice system, join us on February 10 to Rally for Reform!
There is still a lot of fighting over the specific recommendations to reduce some drug law penalties…but CCJJ is standing firm on those reforms. If you have not yet taken the time to voice your support for these drug law changes, consider taking action through the ACLU of Utah’s website to voice your support of these changes.
Governor Herbert’s Healthy Utah Plan
Yeah, I know, it’s not really a BILL, but expansion of access to health care could have the single greatest impact on our criminal justice system of all the actions taken this year. Note the fact that Chief Justice Durrant, in his address to the legislature on behalf of Utah’s judiciary, specifically noted the huge amounts of funding that could be corralled for substance abuse and mental health treatment through Medicaid expansion.
HB 0040 – “Expungement Amendments”
Sponsored by Rep Eric Hutchings, is moving quickly through the process, since Rep. Hutchings already did a lot of hard work on this bill during the interim. This is a great piece of legislation, which ensures that expungement of past criminal convictions includes removing records of those convictions from state agency files. But my favorite part of this legislation is that it makes an affirmative statement about the purpose of expungement:
“The Legislature recognizes that an individual who has committed a criminal act and paid his or her debt to society should, under certain circumstances, be able to move forward and rebuild their life without being hindered by the past.”
Doesn’t that sound great? Hopefully, this one won’t get much pushback and will sail through!
SB 0052 – “Asset Forfeiture Amendments”
Sponsored by Senator Howard Stephenson. This one sounds a little obscure, but it’s really important. I haven’t talked much about the problems around civil asset forfeiture as a problem in the criminal justice system in these updates or on my blog, but that’s NOT because it’s not a HUGE problem—it IS. The long and short of it is:
- by allowing law enforcement to seize and capitalize on community members’ money, property and belongings, civil asset forfeiture laws create negative incentives for law enforcement to hassle people (especially from certain easily-profiled racial groups).
Sen. Stephenson’s common-sense bill would require that law enforcement agencies TRACK their asset forfeiture activities. The collected data should give us a much better sense of how much of a problem this practice is in Utah!
Utah State Prison Relocation
Everyone’s favorite issue, the prison relocation, has already made headlines (as usual)! KSL has a nice write-up of key legislative priorities including discussion of the prison relocation, but which ALSO mentions criminal justice reform. But much more interesting was this D-News article by Lisa Riley Roche which features some lawmakers talking about the possibility that NO potential site will be chosen during the 2015 session. The battle rages on…we’ll see what, if anything, actually moves in this short 45-day window! It won’t be the PRISON that moves in the next 45 days, but we might see legislation reauthorizing the Prison Relocation Commission, if nothing else.
Rep. Gage Froerer’s “Good Landlord Program Amendments”
The bill file still has no public language in it, and no bill number to go along with it. Word on the street is that the bill WON’T include new language that will prevent cities from REQUIRING all landlords participating in such programs to deny housing to people based on their criminal records. Rather, there may be a small “tweak” to the statute, saying the cities can’t force landlords to turn down potential tenants based on criminal convictions that are older than THREE years, rather than the FOUR years currently in state law. This change is not good enough. People who are on probation and parole need housing options that are near their families, support networks and potential employment. You can get up to speed on why so-called “Good Landlord Programs” aren’t so good for criminal justice reform with this quick blog overview, or this in-depth City Weekly article from last November.
HB 0011 – “Death Penalty Procedure Amendments”
Sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, is likely to cause lots of waves – and not just in Utah, either. This bill would allow for the death penalty in Utah to be carried out by firing squad, if in fact lethal injection drugs are not available at the time of Utah’s next scheduled execution. When Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad back in 2010, the spectacle grabbed national and international headlines. Utahns are already lining up to show their lack of approval for Rep. Ray’s bill, and national attention is likely to follow as the bill moves through the legislative process. HB0011 is currently in the House Rules Committee; if it does not get sent to a standing committee for a discussion, the bill might die quietly without a lot of negative national and international attention.
“Task Force on the Use of Force by Law Enforcement”
Sen. Howard Stephenson’s bill is not yet numbered and no language is publicly available. This bill will purportedly take a stab at establishing some state-level task force to examine the the issue of officer-involved shootings, which have been on a sharp rise around Utah in the past year. The legislature has already voiced its approval for such a task force (as reported in this recent news piece from Channel 4). This legislation will presumably create the language that will authorize the task force to start working on the problem. The jury is still out (pun intended) as to the actual impact this move will have on Utah’s spate of officer-involved shootings.
The calendar is slowly developing for the session, and most CJ-related bills do not have a clear path ahead of them at this point. However, in the coming weeks, we will begin to see more of these bills introduced into legislative committees, where public input will be possible. Participating in the legislative process is much easier than most of us think, once you get the hang out it, and – believe it or not – your voice DOES matter.
I highly recommend that you check out this article in the City Weekly, all about how community members can get engaged in the legislative process. There are lots of great “Citizen Lobbyist” trainings going on – most of which are open and friendly to NON-citizens, might I add! – that can give a great overview of how the process works, as well as discussing some of the big issues at this year’s Legislature. Of course, I will proudly plug the ACLU of Utah’s Lobby Training – co-presented with multiple great community partners – next Monday, February 6. Check out all the details here!
And, finally, to give all of us hope that one day the racial disparities in our criminal justice system will be resolved…here’s a photo from the Youth Leadership & Activism Conference this past weekend, which focused on training youth leaders to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline.” These youths were amazing, and their passion about these issues bodes well for our future. Check out these young men rocking their pocket constitutions!