A few years ago, Utah's prison population was growing at a faster rate than the national average. Data shows after policy changes in 2015, both the state's prison population and crime rate have declined.
Utah's prison population is now well below where it had been projected to be by this time, according to new data. Researchers say a few key changes to law-enforcement policy are saving the state millions of dollars in incarceration costs. Recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found Utah's prison population dropped 9 percent from 2015 to 2017.
But just a few years earlier, the state's prison population had been increasing at a rate five times the national average. Adam Gelb, with Pew, said it's clear the state's criminal-justice reform law, passed in 2015, was successful at reversing the trend. Gelb said one of the most effective changes the state made was recategorizing certain nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
"This helps keep people out of expensive prison cells who don't present a threat to public safety,” Gleb said, “but it also prevents them from getting a felony conviction on their record, which has real long-term consequences for their ability to get jobs and housing and become self-sufficient."
Gelb said the money Utah is saving by prioritizing prison space for serious, violent criminals is allowing the state to invest more in rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders.
Gelb said the changes Utah has made do not mean the state is letting criminals off the hook or encouraging crime by reducing punishment. In fact, the state's crime rate has dropped.
"It is very clear now from the experience over the last couple years in Utah, as well as over the past decade in states across the country, that we can reduce crime and imprisonment at the same time,” Gleb said. “In fact, states that are reducing their imprisonment rates by the most are having bigger reductions in crime than states where prisons continue to grow. "
Gelb said if Utah politicians follow through with efforts to keep the state's prison populations low, Utah taxpayers could save 500-million dollars over 20 years.