Earlier this week, we released a short video about the need to alter the current state statute on domestic violence. As it stands, the statute is a prime example of how too often the law does not judge a person’s intent, but instead only looks to see if the person violated the strict letter of the law. Domestic violence laws are meant to be used to prohibit and punish those who injure or harm others they live with—spouses, partners, roommates, etc.
But as government inevitably does, the current statute goes too far and punishes innocent people. This comes about because in Utah if you “commit any offense against property,” specifically “the property of another,” you are also committing domestic violence. On its face that seems fine, until you think back to your recent joint tax return that you filed and you realize that all your property is jointly owned with your spouse. Therefore, that property you just smashed on the ground is considered to be “the property of another”.
All of a sudden, depending on the cost of the property, you might be looking at charges up to a 2nd degree felony.
The juvenile justice system is a complex ecosystem of policies, processes, and programs aimed to deter and/or punish minors who commit a crime. With little reform over the years, there has not been sufficient oversight to control costs, reduce recidivism, and ensure that justice is actually being served through existing criminal laws and the methods by which they are enforced against youth offenders.
Last week the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group released its recommendations on how to improve this system. The working group was created by Governor Gary Herbert, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, and House Speaker Greg Hughes for the purpose of developing recommendations in three areas:
A new report by the Utah Commission on Criminal Juvenile Justice highlights the much-discussed Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed last year by the legislature—a package of criminal justice reform policies aimed to address the growing incarceration rate.
Drug possession offenses are now considered a class A misdemeanor—a penalty of up to one year in jail—instead of a 3rd degree felony, which carries a penalty of up to 5 years in prison. This in turn has steered offenders into rehabilitation centers for treatment instead of perpetuating a cycle of abuse by placing them in prison for punishment for having a mental illness or addiction problem.
Prison population was projected to increase to 7,498 before the Justice Reinvestment Initiative was enacted in 2014, which changed the way Utah punished drug offenders. After the reform was enacted it was estimated that the number of incarcerated individuals would decrease to 6,674. However, the results are better than expected at 6,371, which is 15% lower than estimated numbers before the reform was put into place. Drug offenders used to make up 40% of the prison population; after the reform, they only make up 33.8%.
Each year bills passed by the legislature have the potential of creating new, or altering existing, crimes and the penalties associated with them. In an age when government policy can result in criminalizing everything from unlicensed lemonade stands to catching the wrong lobster, it is important that we pay careful attention to the bills passed by the legislature to ensure that they are not inadvertently criminalizing conduct that is not truly criminal. A few years ago we covered this issue in depth.
In Utah, the legislature passes nearly 500 bills each year. On average, about 50 of these (10%) deal with criminal laws or processes and 20 of those have a potential impact on criminal penalties. Since 2008, 455 bills have passed the legislature dealing with criminal laws with 193 of those creating new, or altering existing, criminal laws. In Utah, there are over 10,000 criminal laws you can be charged with (many of them are repetitive for each local jurisdiction). To find a master list of each potential criminal offense you can be charged with you can refer to the state’s Master Offense Table.
The Utah Sentencing Commission tracks bills that may impact sentencing and criminal penalties each year. We have compiled these reports into one cumulative listing since 2008 for easy reference. While a variety of legislators sponsor these bills, some legislators sponsor more than average. Many of these legislators also serve on either the Judiciary or Law Enforcement Committees.
Here are the top legislative sponsors for criminal justice related bills since 2012:
Most criminal justice bills:
Most bills with felony changes:
Most bills with misdemeanor changes:
In 2015, the legislature overhauled many criminal statutes in an effort to ensure fewer admissions and stays in prison and to reinvest savings on treatment and rehabilitation instead. We applaud this effort to be smart on crime and believe that taxpayer dollars should not be wasted on senseless over-criminalization.
This bill passed the Senate 15-12 but was not considered by the House.
Libertas Institute supports this bill.
We have written extensively about the problems associated with the death penalty in our policy brief and recent op-ed. It is too costly, it is inefficient, and it does not promote good public safety. Instead, it siphons money from more important criminal justice priorities in order to fund what has essentially become expensive retribution. It would be wise policy to stop seeking the death penalty.
Senate Bill 189, sponsored by Senator Steve Urquhart, would repeal the death penalty in Utah. For all crimes prosecuted after May 10th, 2016, the state could not seek the death penalty in applicable capital murder cases. Instead, these defendants would face the same penalty as most murder suspects–life in prison, including life without the possibility for parole. A fiscal analysis in Utah showed the aggregate marginal cost for seeking the death penalty over life in prison was as much as $1.7M. This means that state could save nearly $2M for each case in which the state forgoes seeking the death penalty. That savings would go right back into the local county budgets for higher priority public safety expenditures. When retribution costs that much, we need to rethink our policy.
This bill failed in the Senate, 11-17.
Libertas Institute opposes this bill.
Senate Bill 107, sponsored by Senator Stephen Urquhart, would create a “penalty enhancement” for any crime that involves “hate.” Specifically, the bill stipulates that the added penalty would be triggered in cases of a criminal offense where the actor intentionally targeted the victim because of the actor’s “belief or perception regarding [the] individual’s ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation,” or the victim’s affiliation with a group that has one or more of the listed characteristics. The penalty is also triggered if the crime is against property for the same reasons.
If a judge finds that a person has committed a “hate crime,” then the crime’s penalty increases by one factor; for example, a class B misdemeanor would automatically become a class A misdemeanor. This is a significant change; for example, a third degree felony involves zero to five years in prison, whereas a second degree felony has a one year minimum in prison, and a maximum of 15 years.
This bill seems especially incongruous in light of the recent criminal justice reforms which involved a widespread reclassification and reduction in crimes, in part to keep people out of prison who should not be there.
The motives involved in a crime are not important to the action itself. Whether an assault was instigated by the aggressor’s jealousy, drunkenness, anger, or discriminatory “perception” about the victim’s personal characteristics is immaterial. Taxpayers should not be required to subsidize higher incarceration rates in pursuit of misnamed “social justice.”
This bill passed the Senate 22-5 and passed the House 39-35 after being modified, but the Senate and House could not agree to the final changes, so the bill died.
Libertas Institute supports this bill.
Recently, we pointed out the problems with criminalizing parents for their children’s non-attendance at government schools and how many parents are charged with crimes from the truancy of their children in Utah. Senate Bill 45, sponsored by Senator Al Jackson, decriminalizes truancy by eliminating the class B misdemeanor offenses for parents in the state’s compulsory education law.
Childhood education in our country has gone from private and optional to public and mandatory. However, schools were never intended—and are not equipped—to replace parents. School attendance choices are a parental responsibility. When government imposes criminal sanctions for non-attendance, it is implicitly claiming a right over parental roles that it does not—and should not—have.
Moreover, taxpayers should not be asked to pay for the law enforcement, judicial, and incarceration costs associated with imposing criminal penalties on non-attendance so that schools can ensure their budgets are unaffected by changes in attendance. This is an inappropriate use of criminal justice resources.
This bill helps restore the balance of power between parents and schools. Schools serve the needs of parents who enroll their children in schools, not the other way around.
It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. —James Madison, Federalist 62
Recently we brought to your attention Utah’s new effort at criminal justice reform. This effort is designed to decrease prison populations in order to decrease public expenditures—to achieve a more efficient administration of justice. In other words, to be “smart on crime.” An article in The Economist gives one reason for growing prison populations: too many laws. This led us to wonder just how many laws there are in our state. While Utah code has over ten million words of laws and regulations, the master table of criminal offenses adds up to 10,403 crimes you can be charged with at the state and local level. With that many laws it is nearly impossible for any person to know what is and is not illegal. Some have even suggested that an average person could easily commit three felonies a day without even realizing it.
Winston Churchill said it best: “if you make ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.” Well, we have over ten thousand criminal offenses alone—not counting voluminous regulations. The reality is that most people are breaking many of these laws on a regular basis without even knowing it. John Stossel wrote that such extensive rules “paralyze life.” At a minimum, they preclude liberty.
Government legitimately exists to protect the fundamental rights of each individual who comprises it—life, liberty, and property, among other rights. With over 10,000 laws, how many are designed to prohibit offenses against person or property—the most legitimate of all government laws? The answer is only 5%. The rest are mostly regulatory in nature, including traffic and tax offenses, or crimes related to “public order.”
In his 2014 State of the State Address, Utah Governor Gary Herbert said:
Addressing population growth also involves improving our criminal justice system and providing structure for individuals to become productive members of society. There has been a great deal of discussion about relocating the state prison. This is a discussion worth having, but it must be done in the larger context of reforming our criminal justice system as a whole.
I have asked for a full review of our current system to develop a plan to reduce recidivism, maximize offenders’ success in becoming law-abiding citizens, and provide judges with the tools they need to accomplish these goals. The prison gates through which people re-enter society must be a permanent exit, and not just a revolving door.
In light of the Governor’s priority to address criminal justice reform he has instructed Director Ron Gordon and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to make reforms by the end of the calendar year. This will include reviewing and changing policy as well as proposing legislative reforms for next year’s session. CCJJ has adopted this review project as its priority study item for this year and has been conducting town-hall style public hearings around the state to obtain feedback and suggestions from the public on criminal justice reform.
Weldon Angelos was a Salt Lake City resident who grew up in poverty and struggled to find his way early in life. The son of a Greek immigrant, his family’s financial condition left him wanting much as a child. He found some success as a rap musician, and around the same time began to sell marijuana to make extra cash—to better provide for his own children, he claims.
In 2002 he sold three half-pound bags, worth a total of $350 at the time, to a police informant—an individual who faced his own drug charges but was courting favor of his prosecutors by assisting in catching other alleged criminals. Weldon was arrested by local police officers working in tandem with federal agents.
The informant claimed that Angelos was carrying a gun during the transaction—a claim not substantiated by any evidence. Yet this claim alone served as basis to impose mandatory minimum sentences during prosecution, as Congress had imposed harsh punishments for gun-related drug offenses in hopes of deterring the behavior.