Will Sex Crime Sentences Be Reduced to Make Room in Utah’s Prisons?

In February of 2014, state legislators asked Pew Charitable Trusts to perform a cost analysis of Utah’s prison system.  Pew was tasked with proposing a strategy that would minimize expenses while simultaneously “holding offenders accountable” and “improving public safety.”  Pew analysts discovered that Utah’s inmate population had increased by 22% over the previous decade — and in particular, the sex offender population had increased by 42%.  With the legislature scheduled to reconvene just months from now in January of 2015, lawmakers will eventually have to confront a tough but important question: should prison sentences for sex crimes be reduced in order to free up badly-needed space in Utah’s increasingly crowded correctional facilities?

Barbed wire around prison wallsPew Study Finds Average Annual Cost of $28,400 Per Utah Prisoner

Maintaining a prison population can get expensive in a hurry.  Inmates have to be sheltered, clothed, cleaned, and fed, and those basic needs don’t even begin to factor in additional considerations like prisoner education, rehabilitation programs, and prescription medications.  These expenses add up fast, totaling a yearly average cost of $28,400 per prisoner.

Multiply that number by the 6,879 prisoners the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported filling Utah’s correctional facilities in 2011, and you end up with a total cost of about $195,363,600 — almost $200 million.  Of course, there are plenty of inmates who ultimately spend only days, weeks, or months behind bars; but even if you take an extremely conservative approach and slash that number in half, you’re still left with an annual expenditure of about $100 million.

But even that figure assumes the prison population will stay level over time — which it won’t, if the past decade is any indicator.  According to Pew data, Utah’s prison population has grown from about 5,800 inmates 10 years ago, to over 7,100 prisoners as of January 1, 2014: an increase of 22%. The budget may be manageable now, but what sort of prognosis is Utah looking at 10, 20, 30 years into the future?

In short, it’s not a good one — and the heart of the problem may be the sex offender population. While the overall inmate population increased by about one fifth, sex offenders disproportionately spiked by 42%, which leads to one conclusion: if sex offenders take up so much space and cost the state so much money, then not only are they the heart of the problem, they’re also the heart of any future solution.

The question for legislators is what, exactly, that solution should be.

Business Meeting Conference Journalism Microphones

Are Lengthy Sex Crime Sentences Creating Inmate Overcrowding?

For Board of Pardons and Parole member Clark Harms, the answer is a controversial one: lighter sentences.

“I’m not saying that we ought not to punish,” Harms starts. “But, I’m saying that 25 to life, or even a presumption of 15 years to life on regular first-degree felony sex offenses, you’re going to have to, eventually, the board is going to get to a point where we have to start letting everyone else out because all we have room for are murderers and sex offenders.”

Harms is referring, among other statutes, to Title 76, Chapter 5, Section 404.1 (76-5-404.1) of the Utah State Legislature.  This statute classifies sexual abuse of a child as a second degree felony, while the aggravated version of the same offense is a first degree felony.  Pursuant to 76-5-404.1, these crimes can be punished with sentences of 15 years to life, while 76-3-405 adds that many sex crimes against children — including rape, object rape, sodomy, and aggravated sexual abuse — are also ineligible for probation and suspended sentences.  Some of these offenses, such as object rape of a child (76-5-402.3), trigger even lengthier terms: a mandatory minimum of 25 years to life.

The Pew analysis seems to agree with Harms’ assessment, stating, “The number of sex offenders in prison grew 42%, likely due to change in time served.”

But while reducing the length of sex crime sentences may be the most logical solution to Utah’s prison woes, it’s not going to be an easy solution to push to the public — or to the policymakers who rely on their votes.

For no type of offender, perhaps not even convicted murderers, is there greater stigmatization, which is evident in the numerous restrictions imposed on sex offenders by 77-27-21.7.  Ironically, a November 2003 report compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics actually found that only about 3.5% of sex offenders were re-convicted for another sex crime within three years; but while the data points to extremely low recidivism rates, no amount of number-crunching is likely to sway public opinion where sex crimes are concerned.

Victims and their families may also oppose lighter sentencing.  When convicted sex offender Michael Doporto was scheduled to be released after 20 years in prison, the family of one his victims started a petition to extend his sentence.  During the Martin MacNeill trial earlier this month, daughter and victim Alexis Somers stated,  “My father is a monster…  Please give him the maximum sentence.”

Without question, it’s a sensitive and difficult issue that brings up powerful, conflicting, and sometimes painful considerations.  Nonetheless, it’s an issue lawmakers will eventually be forced to tackle as Utah’s prisons continue to fill.

“There are a number of different considerations that have to take place, and I hope we don’t shy away from any of them just because it might be tough,” says Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice Executive Director Ron Gordon.  “There’s an interesting and unique balance: being responsive to the public, mindful of keeping risk levels down, but also trying to figure out how we can help these populations.”

If you have been charged with kidnapping or committing a sex crime in Utah, you face some of the nation’s harshest penalties.  To set up a completely confidential and free legal consultation with an experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer, call Darwin Overson right away at (801) 758-2287.