We have written previously about Utah’s voluminous laws and are pleased to report that after this session, the number of criminal offenses has been reduced significantly due to the comprehensive criminal justice reform effort. House Bill 348, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, garnered a lot of attention for its reduction in criminal offense levels for certain low-level drug offenses—but it also had a significant impact on certain misdemeanor traffic offenses. The bill reclassified 259 offenses from a class C misdemeanor to an infraction, 34 class B offenses to a class C, and made a handful of other reductions.
Many places in Utah code previously set the default criminal classification as a class C misdemeanor, which comes with a possible jail sentence of up to 90 days. These reclassifications represent significant progress in reducing the impact of over-criminalization on Utahns and the taxes they pay. The purpose of the reforms was to refocus criminal justice resources on those crimes that have the largest impact on public safety. For example, instead of sending someone to jail for “driving over a firehose,” the state will now treat this as an infraction with fines instead of expensive and burdensome jail time.
John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” recently did a segment on over-criminalization in America and the impact of municipal and other small violations on people’s lives. At one point he quipped that the state has to “spend money to make money to be able to afford to jail people to lose money.” This describes quite accurately the fiscal shortcomings to a criminal justice approach where expensive enforcement resources are devoted to collecting fines on small offenses that can land offenders in expensive jails for unpaid fines related to minor offenses. Such an approach turns our “public safety” apparatus into nothing more than a veiled return to the debtor prisons of the past—but at significant taxpayer expense.
Over-criminalization also has the effect of undermining the morality of law as it expands state sanctions against morally wrong behavior to mere violations of the regulatory state. George Will wrote that this “corrodes the rule of law” in his column this week where he argued that the administrative state threatens liberty.
We applaud the legislature for passing these sweeping reforms and hope that they will sustain this commitment to reducing over -criminalization in Utah.