Updates to Utah Laws Reduce Sentences for Certain Drug Crimes

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

If you were arrested for drug possession in Utah, or if a loved one was sentenced to prison for possession on or after October 1, 2015, this article is for you. A law passed by Governor Gary Herbert earlier this year dramatically shortened many of Utah’s drug possession sentences, reducing various felonies to misdemeanors.

Gov. Herbert Signs Bill to Combat Prison Overcrowding by Shortening Sentences

Utah is known for relaxed gun regulations, but the same cannot be said of its drug laws. Proponents claim Utah’s tough drug penalties discourage crime and recidivism, but critics have pointed to an unwanted side effect: rampant overcrowding in many of Utah’s correctional facilities. While prison overpopulation is a statewide and indeed national issue, the Guide to Salt Lake County Jail has faced a particularly difficult battle with overcrowding, eventually leading County Sheriff Jim Winder to call for increased probation.

Earlier this year, Gov. Herbert shortened sentences for select drug crimes by signing into law HB348, also known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The bill was created in response to data by Pew Charitable Trusts – a non-partisan, non-profit organization which advises on public policy – indicating that drug offenders were driving a significant increase in Utah’s burgeoning prison population.

Female judge with brown gavel and law books

Pew researchers found that Utah’s number of inmates increased by 22% during the past 10 years – and, of even greater concern, that the number was projected to rise by 37% over the next 20 years. If accurate, this increase would necessitate about 2,700 new prison beds.

To put that number into greater perspective, every Utah county jail combined accounted for just over 1,500 beds as of 2001, according to a report by the Utah Legislature, Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst. At that time, the state owned an additional 5,187 beds, giving Utah an approximate total of just 6,700 beds. With this number in mind – and the steady influx of prisoners over time – it’s easy to see how truly massive an undertaking the creation of 2,700 additional beds would be.
In March, when the bill was passed, HB348 was expected to slash the growth of Utah’s prison population by a promising 95%. On Thursday, October 1, the bill officially went into effect. So how will inmates, defendants, and taxpayers be impacted?

Many Drug Possession Felonies Become Misdemeanors Effective Oct. 1, 2015

For Utah residents, the bill is a financial boon. According to Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook, the new law is expected to save taxpayers about $500 million over the next 20 years.

Defendants who are currently facing drug charges, as well as convicted offenders who were sentenced on or after October 1, also benefit. If your loved one was convicted of drug possession as a second degree felony (one to 15 years) or a first degree felony (five years to life), his or her offense is now a misdemeanor, meaning his or her sentence just became years or maybe decades shorter than it was originally going to be.

The revised statute, which is still located at Utah Code § 58-37-8, is headed by a notice stating it becomes effective October 1, 2015. Under Utah Code § 58-37-8(2)(d), the updated statute provides that anyone who “violates Subsection (2)(a)(i),” i.e. commits drug possession, “is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.” The maximum penalties for a Class B misdemeanor include a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail.

This includes possession of marijuana (cannabis) in amounts under 100 pounds, but excludes offenses involving Schedule I and Schedule II drugs. Possession of marijuana in amounts of 100 pounds or more is a second degree felony. Possession of a Schedule I or Schedule II drug is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and/or up to $2,500 in fines.

Drug scheduling is determined by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), not the state of Utah. The list below provides some examples of drug schedules:

  • Schedule IV
    Alprazolam (Xanax)
    Ambien
    Diazepam (Valium)
  • Schedule III
    Anabolic Steroids
    Ketamine
    Testosterone
  • Schedule II
    Adderall
    Cocaine
    Fentanyl
    Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
    Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
    Meperidine (Demerol)
    Methadone
    Methamphetamine
    Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Schedule I
    Ecstasy
    Heroin
    LSD/Acid
    Marijuana
    Methaqualone (Quaaludes)

It is important to point out that the affected statute covers more than just drug possession. Offenses such as drug distribution, production, manufacturing, sales, and organized criminal activity are still generally graded as felonies. HB348 applies only to possession for personal use (simple possession).

prescription drugs

Additionally, the statute downgrades over 200 different misdemeanors to citations, which are usually issued for minor traffic violations.

Unfortunately, the bill does not apply retroactively. Current inmates who were sentenced before October 1, when the bill took effect, will not be impacted by the revised sentencing law.

While the reduced sentences are good news for defendants and offenders who were recently sentenced, the fact remains that a conviction will still result in incarceration, stiff fines, and the creation of a burdensome criminal record. If you’ve been charged with drug possession in Park City or elsewhere in the Salt Lake City area, you need an aggressive and experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side. To start discussing your legal matter in a free and confidential consultation, call attorney Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 today.

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