Justice Check: JRI

"Individuals under community supervision reported that 'doing time' is easier than having to abide by their release requirements."
Why sentencing matters

On October 1, 2015 the reforms embodied in the justice reinvestment initiative (JRI) went into effect. Now, one-year later, where do we stand?

REASON TO HOPEsentencingmatters5

As outlined in a Deseret News opinion piece (Sentencing reform gains foothold in Utah), the JRI reforms “reflect a growing recognition that policies leading to a skyrocketing rate of incarceration have not had a proportionate impact on increasing public safety.”  The editorial heralds the arrival of the Utah Alternatives to Conviction Track (U-ACT) program in the Federal District Court for Utah.

The U-ACT program offers justice-involved participants “a creative blend of treatment, sanction alternatives, judicial involvement, and unique incentives to effectively address offender behavior for the purposes of promoting rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and promoting the safety of our community.” The editorial concludes with the following:

“We are fortunate to be at a time when we have chosen to actively correct a flawed calculus in the relationship between crime and punishment. More reasonable sentencing standards and the adoption of diversion programs will bring a measure of common sense and compassion to a system that has for too long been predicated on the imperative to punish behavior, as opposed to redirecting it.”

U-ACT is, without a doubt, a welcome alternative in the Draconian federal system, but what of the progress in Utah’s state court system?

On September 29, 2016 officials in Salt Lake County announced plans to take “unprecedented action to restore public safety in parts of downtown Salt Lake City” in the Rio Grande District (New Initiative to Solve Problems in the Rio Grande Area).

JRI reduced penalties for many drug offenses, Salt Lake County officials point to a 209% increase in the number of class A misdemeanors handled by the courts; most of which would have been felonies prior to the implementation of JRI.  In an unprecedented turn of events, and in a concerted effort to create better outcomes, city and county leaders, including Mike Brown (Salt Lake City Police Chief), Jim Winder (Salt Lake County Sheriff), Sim Gill (Salt Lake County District Attorney), Jackie Biskupski (Salt Lake City Mayor), and Tim Whalen (Behavioral Health Director) formulated a plan “to arrest and jail the criminals who need to be prosecuted and arrange for those who need help, those who suffer from drug and alcohol or mental health issues, to gain access to the treatment and support they need for recovery.”

Most importantly, Salt Lake County has committed $1.2 million to the project as a means of offering “immediate access to treatment to individuals from licensed medical providers – for up to six months”  The efforts underway in the Rio Grande District marks “the first time we’ve been able to include diversion to treatment, as an alternative to jail, for those arrested in the downtown area where drug crimes are all too evident.”

REASON FOR CONCERNsentencingmatters2

There is widespread opposition to JRI from key stakeholders, including judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement.  For example, “Judge Thomas Wilmore also expressed frustration that because of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), it was recommended that the defendant only be given a jail sentence. He faulted the governor and legislature in Utah, and said the system would soon cave in on itself as the public looses faith in the legislation.” (Judge reluctantly sentences Logan man to jail for stabbing Idaho man during fight)

During the era before JRI, Utah’s judges were not required to abide by the Sentencing Guidelines promulgated by the Sentencing Commission, nor were they required to articulate a basis for deviating from them; and they still are not required to do so.  Sentencing in the state system is reminiscent of the wild west in which anything goes in the name of judicial discretion.

Judge Wilmore was appointed to the bench in 1999 by then Governor Leavitt and is the Associate Presiding Judge for the First Judicial District.  He knows, or should know, that he is not bound by the sentencing guidelines, nor is he bound by the recommendations of Adult Probation & Parole, so why is he blaming JRI and offering doomsday predictions for the future of JRI?

Unfortunately, due to the lack of transparency in the criminal justice system, resistance to JRI permeates the criminal justice system.  Judge Wilmore’s comments offer a rare glimpse into the fortifications that have been constructed to maintain the status quo and continue operating in a manner that is not in the public’s interest.

Unlike past practices, JRI is grounded in science and is in the public’s interest.  When offenders are indiscriminately categorized, warehoused, and released, often without access to necessary treatment programs, public safety is compromised.

Organizational change, such as JRI, often fails; but not because of faulty strategies, poor leadership, or lack of funding.  Here, however, we are talking about changes to the entire criminal justice system, not just a single organization within that system.

Critics of JRI point to the “shiny, plastic tokens given” out as rewards for good behavior to probationers and parolee’s as evidence of the misguided nature of JRI and the “offender friendly” mindset associated with it.  The tokens are “ridiculous” and look like a child’s plaything (Dangerous Criminals: Who is tracking Utah’s worst offenders?),at least according to the unnamed probation & parole agents interviewed by KSL.  Agents who obviously fail to grasp the significance and importance of reframing the manner in which offenders are dealt with because it is contrary to the”way we’ve always done it here.”  (The 9 Most Dangerous Words In Business)


Left alone, JRI is doomed to fail as stakeholders revert to the mean in accordance with Newton’s first law of motion (an objects at rest tends to stay at rest) unless those who support JRI remain connected, involved, and engaged in the process of change, which requires communication.  According to research conducted by Robert Half Management Resources: “clear and frequent communication can be the remedy for what ails change-management efforts.” (Why Does Organizational Change Usually Fail? New Study Provides Simple Answer)

It is incumbent upon each of us to further the conversation of reform, regardless of the personal opinions related to JRI.  These conversations must be based on facts, nor hyperbole.  JRI will not fix all the deficiencies in the system, nor is it to blame for the problems in that system; it is, however, a step in the right direction. In a similar fashion, childlike tokens may not be the panacea envisioned by JRI contributors but they do denote a deliberate step away from the comfort zone of punitive past practices

We are fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to reform the criminal justice system and adopt “reasonable sentencing standards” and practices that contribute to, rather than undermine, public safety without bankrupting taxpayers.