SALT LAKE CITY — How can Utah become more compassionate to those whose drug addictions lead to arrests?
A panel that advises lawmakers on criminal justice issues in Utah considered the question Monday as it debated whether tweaks are needed to a 2015 series of reforms reducing penalties in drug cases.
One possible, empathetic change: directing prosecutors to withhold immediate criminal charges and drop the case entirely if offenders complete a treatment program, according to Rep. Paul Ray, a member of the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force.
Hypothetically, the Clearfield Republican said, "that charge is never even filed, it just goes away."
"That is something we could make happen," responded Will Carlson, a Salt Lake County deputy district attorney. He said Utah has experience with moving away from "shame-based prosecution" and shifting to a therapeutic approach.
For example, Salt Lake County authorities arrested and charged men in the 1990s for having sex with each other in parks, but the prosecutions did not curb repeat offenses, Carlson said. So the county started a program allowing the men to enter a guilty plea but avoid jail time if they fulfilled two requirements: attending a course on healthy ways to express yourself and getting tested for sexually transmitted infections.
When it comes to drug cases, Carlson said, "I do agree that if prosecutors approach this as a public health issue … it can have a positive impact."
Utah Sentencing Commission Director Marshall Thompson told the panel that he was struck by a sentiment from Brian Besser, Utah's Drug Enforcement Administration agent in charge, at an opioid conference in Utah over the weekend: that shame is perhaps the biggest obstacle stopping those with addictions from getting treatment in Utah.
Thompson said he believes Utah "did make a big step in that regard in 2015" when it reduced penalties for many drug crimes, including possession — now a misdemeanor on the first two offenses and a felony on the third. He said it is easier for offenders to admit to their families they were picked up on a misdemeanor charge and not a felony.
"I don't know what, beyond that, criminal sentencing could do," Thompson said. "Maybe it's just a cultural shift we all need to focus on."
Kim Cordova, executive director of Utah's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, agreed. She said discussions with judges, treatment providers and public health officers have shown her that there "has to be a switch. We need to work and partner better with law enforcement agencies so they are educated and understand what services are out there," instead of believing jail and prison are always the answer.
Since the reforms took effect, Utah's drug courts, which help connect offenders to treatment, have had a 20 percent increase in admissions, Thompson said. But bringing substance abuse-treatment programs to rural areas remains a challenge.
Another issue, added Weber County prosecutor Dee Smith, is that some judges feel pressure to follow the reduced sentencing guidelines exactly and not to use their discretion to impose heftier terms if they see fit.
Also at the meeting, panel members touched on possibly revising the law to take better aim at those turning a profit from the drugs, and to force better oversight of money designated for treatment.
The panel reconvenes in September.