By Jackson Murphy
Possession of the drugs methamphetamine and heroin were once felony charges in Utah; those same charges now only garner a misdemeanor — and local law enforcement officials are already seeing the impact.
And they’re not all pleased.
“There is frustration,” said Sgt. Brooks Davis of the Cache-Rich Drug Task Force. “Because of these changes we are experiencing less concern from some who commit drug offenses as the consequences are less.”
House Bill 348, a bill sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, went into effect in October. The bill reduced charges for possession of “user amounts” of certain drugs for the first couple of offenses.
Every Cache County legislative representative voted for the amended law last year, including Edward Redd, R-Logan, who said he still stands behind his vote.
Redd, a practicing physician, said treatment is often a better alternative to incarceration and having a felony conviction can make it incredibly difficult to find housing and jobs. During sessions in which the bill was debated, he said, there was “a lot of data presented by really smart people.” The evidence, he said, showed rehab is necessary and longer jail sentences don’t always lead to recovery.
Davis said his apprehension with the bill is because there are several different paths already in place with Utah court systems that reduce felony offenses to misdemeanors, including drug programs and court negotiations.
“The stove is no longer hot,” Davis said. “Without something to force an addict to seek treatment to make themselves right, they see a misdemeanor as a weekend in jail and then they walk away and don’t care.”
“The reason for that bill is not to tie the law enforcement’s hands so they can’t do anything,” Redd said. “The rationale is to try and get people who are non-violent offenders into treatment. Sometimes you can put a person like that into jail and you cause more problems than you fix.”
Data from an August Pew Public Safety Performance Project analysis found the United States’ federal incarceration of drug offenders has increased from under 5,000 in 1980 to over 95,000 today. Those who are convicted stay longer with no noticeable decrease to recidivism and drug use.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in fiscal year 2010 the Utah Department of Corrections overspent its budget by 4.3 percent, with a total cost of $186 million. By its analysis, the average annual cost per inmate was close to $30,000.
“In some cases, he is right, they’ll just blow off the misdemeanors,” Redd said in response to Davis’ concerns. “Others will have a misdemeanor rather than a felony, get into treatment and get better, and they won’t be stuck in jail.”
“Everyone can agree it’s tragic when people get addicted,” said Spencer Walsh, the chief prosecutor for the Cache County Attorney’s Office. “People die because of it and their potential is snuffed out. We can all agree on that.”
Walsh said that in his experience, the addictiveness of drugs like heroin and methamphetamine is so strong that, in the past, it took a potential felony to motivate change. That change, he said, can often come from enrollment in rigorous drug court programs that are offered throughout the state of Utah.
The program is offered to qualified participants who enter a guilty plea for the charge until the completion of its requirements. According to Walsh, the program can take 18 months, with sometimes weekly urinalysis tests and court appearances all while maintaining employment.
Walsh said most drug addicts will choose the misdemeanor option over drug court.
Since the law has changed, Walsh has seen drug court numbers drop drastically.
“I think we are at an all-time low,” Walsh said. “We don’t have the same leverage to get people to change.”
Both Walsh and Cache County Attorney James Swink said the law was well-intended. “I know the intent and I agree with the intent,” Swink said.
Legislators “promised they were going to fund a lot of rehabilitation efforts. Let’s see if the politicians can deliver on that,” Walsh said. “I’ve not seen that work quite yet, but I’m hopeful it will.”
“We did the best that we could, with recommendations from people who aren’t trying to pull a quick one on us,” Redd said. “We want more money spent on rehab and less on housing.”
The Utah Legislature began its 45-day election-year session on Monday.
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