Prison Reform, Relocation Discussed to Address Utah’s Prison Population

Utah prison reform discussed

Photo: Erika Wittlieb

As part of Utah’s ongoing attempt to address the growing prison population, input on prison reform was recently taken from experts in Texas who have also worked toward fixing the problem in their own state. Reforms have been officially on the table in Utah since August of 2014 when a subcommittee was formed to address the problem, but it’s questionable if they will receive public support. Add in the fact that the current prison location at Point of the Mountain is “falling apart” and unable to support the growth but also unable to find a new home, and Utah has a problem that some seem unwilling to fix.

Prison Reform Means “Sweeping Changes”

According to a report from KSL News, two prison reform experts from Texas, a state with their own problems to deal with regarding incarceration, have called for “sweeping changes.”

Jerry Madden, a former Texas state representative and senior fellow at Right on Crime, a conservative public policy foundation in Texas, called prison reform the best way to control prison population and taxpayer costs. He said there were two options if a state wasn’t going to build new prisons—something Utah will have to deal with regardless of these options. They can either let people out of prison early or figure out a way to slow down the numbers coming in.

One aspect of prison reform is working on breaking the cycle of incarceration. Madden said early childhood intervention is the best and cheapest method for keeping people out of prison. He stated that one of the best indicators that someone has a future in prison is to look at their home life, claiming that if one or both parents have spent time in prison, it’s likely the child will end up there as well.

These problems at home can lead to drug, alcohol, and mental health issues, something which also contributes to the growing prison population. Along these lines, the Utah subcommittee that was formed in August to address the recidivism problem in Utah has proposed similar measures as those recommended by the Right on Crime foundation in addition to early intervention. These measures are to specifically make drug possession a misdemeanor, strengthen probation and parole supervision, and expand treatment programs.

These views seem to be in alignment with a prison reform movement nationwide. In December, it was reported that the American Bar Association had been working with a task force formed by the House Judiciary Committee—the Task Force on Over-Criminalization—to examine increasing numbers of federal crimes providing for prison sentences. Statistics from the task force that seem to indicate a problem in the system included:

  • The cost of housing one federal inmate has reached $29,000 per year
  • 75,579 prisoners are currently serving mandatory minimum sentences (another area being examined by the ABA House of Delegates)
  • 99,246 prisoners are currently serving prison time for nonviolent drug offenses

Marc Levin, the public policy director for Right on Crime who also spoke on the need for prison reform in Utah, stated that he believed most people would say we should reserve prison time for criminals the public is afraid of, “not those we’re mad at.”

The problem is that when it comes to many of these reforms, while the public may agree with Levin, they have a hard time supporting some of the changes which would bring it about, such as a loosening of the laws. In addition, funding for some of the treatment programs has been either drastically reduced or cut altogether.

When Prison Reform Means Re-forming a Prison

Another area for consideration in Utah is the ongoing search for a new prison site to replace the current Point of the Mountain location in Draper. Besides the fact that House Majority Assistant Whip-elect Brad Wilson has said the current location is “falling apart,” there is also the fact that given the growth rate of the Utah prison population, the Draper location will be short thousands of beds over the next twenty years.

So the answer is either a major (and costly) renovation of the current facility or building a new facility elsewhere. However, public reaction from citizens in the majority of potential sites which have been proposed demonstrates another side of the unwillingness to remedy what is clearly a problem in Utah.

Of the six sites previously suggested, three of them have been taken off the list. Two of them—Saratoga Springs and West Jordan—had the offers removed by landowners, and the site near the Salt Lake City International Airport was removed as a result of wetland issues. However, residents from all three remaining sites have also protested the consideration of having a new prison in their location. While the legislature was hoping to resolve this issue this year, House Speaker-elect Greg Hughes has said he doesn’t believe it is going to happen.

Prison reform is a tricky issue, and it would appear the solution will have to come from many sources. Utah will need to really look at its recidivism rate and their current punitive measures and address those, but because this isn’t a problem that is fixed overnight, the lack of capacity at the current prison facility also must be addressed. Perhaps most importantly, Utahns need to recognize that if they want to get a little, they are going to need to give a little.

Drastic Increase in Utah Poaching Incidents Past Two Years

Utah poaching incidents increase

Photo: Agricultural Research Service/Wikimedia Commons

According to recent figures from state wildlife officials, poaching incidents in Utah have increased by more than 30 percent over the past two years. However, officials say these numbers may not be representative of what is actually happening and may still increase in the coming days.

Poaching: The Many Factors of an Often Unsolved Crime

Given recent news about a protected gray wolf shot by a hunter who allegedly claims he thought it was a coyote, the issue of poaching and shooting protected animals in general is definitely in the public eye.

According to an Associated Press article, authorities have reported that more than 1,287 animals were killed illegally in 2014, however those numbers may increase as patrolling wildlife officers find more animals. In 2013, the numbers were 958.

Because the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources relies on their officers finding the animals or getting tips on someone poaching wildlife, they estimate that the numbers are much higher if poachers are able to dispose of the body and keep the incident to themselves.

Of the poaching incidents in Utah, the largest numbers of animals are deer, who are sought for their antlers. Box Elder County wildlife officer Mike Kinghorn said the bodies are often found without their heads. Other animals on the 2014 list include elk, moose, buffalo, bears, eagles, a desert tortoise, and even a pelican.

Poaching Penalties in Utah

Poaching occurs under three main circumstances: if the animal is killed out of season, if the hunter doesn’t have a license, or the hunter takes more animals than the state allows.

Per Utah Criminal Code 23-20-4, poaching is considered “wanton destruction of protected wildlife” and ranges from a class B misdemeanor up to a third degree felony. This is determined by the value of the animal as valuated by that particular section (and whether or not the animal is considered a “trophy animal” such as a deer, in which case it is a felony).

In addition to fines and potential jail time imposed as a result of the charge, restitution is generally imposed on the offender based on a list of animals and subsequent restitution charges as found in Utah Criminal Code 23-20-4.5. For example, as a trophy animal, poaching deer would be considered a felony and have an additional minimum of $8,000 in restitution.

Poaching is a serious crime just to have a trophy on your wall. If you or someone you know has been accused of poaching, make sure to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who will look out for your best interests.

Brooklyn DA Reviews Dozens of Wrongful Conviction Cases

Brooklyn DA reviews wrongful conviction cases

Photo: Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of January, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson stated that he is seeking to vacate the wrongful conviction of a man who served 20 years in prison for a 1991 murder. However, this isn’t the first wrongful conviction the new DA is seeking to vacate. It is simply the next in a line of cases that Thompson has been examining since his election in 2013. Many of these cases are being linked to a retired New York Police Department detective who has been accused of several indiscretions.

According to a report from the Daily News, Thompson was quoted as saying, “Correcting miscarriages of justice is very important. Having men in prison for murders they did not commit is not justice.”

The Release of Derrick Hamilton

The most recent case to make the news regarding a wrongful conviction involves Derrick Hamilton. In 1991, Hamilton was convicted of shooting Nathaniel Cash in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Even though Hamilton argued that he was actually in another state when the shooting occurred, one of the prosecution’s witnesses—Cash’s girlfriend, Jewel Smith—testified that Hamilton was the shooter. This testimony has since been questioned, partially at the request of Smith herself.

In 1991, Smith claimed that Cash was shot from the front, however, forensic evidence showed that he was actually shot from behind. Hamilton was sentenced to 25 years for the murder, but he maintained his innocence almost 20 years, even refusing to apologize before a parole board for “his” actions.

In 2011 Smith recanted her testimony and has since lobbied for Hamilton’s release. Hamilton was granted early release that same year, and as far as Hamilton is concerned, the recent exoneration by the Brooklyn DA has closed the door on that part of his past.

“I feel vindicated,” Hamilton told the Daily News. “It’s like a rebirth. I’m a new guy. I can live my life in happiness.”

A Pattern of Wrongful Conviction Cases

Besides the mismatch of forensic evidence, one issue that was brought up regarding the wrongful conviction of Derrick Hamilton is the alleged improprieties carried out by former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella. In the case of Hamilton, Scarcella allegedly coerced a witness in the case.

This isn’t the first such accusation. When this story first broke in May of 2013, the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal reported that then-District Attorney Charles J. Hynes was looking into at least 50 homicide cases that may have involved a wrongful conviction. When Kenneth P. Thompson was elected the new Brooklyn DA, he stated at a news conference that he had “inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful conviction cases.”

As of this month, it is reported that the DA’s office is currently reviewing approximately 100 cases. The determination in the case of Derrick Hamilton was actually the 11th such exoneration of someone wrongfully convicted since Thompson was elected in 2013, two of which were exonerated posthumously.

The alleged misconduct by Scarcella first came to light in March of 2013 as the result of an internal investigation by the district attorney’s office. Scarcella, who was a homicide detective for 26 years and directed or assisted approximately 350 homicide investigations, was accused of multiple improprieties potentially resulting in several cases of wrongful conviction.

Allegedly, he directed witnesses—many of whom were already serving jail time—as to who to pick out in police lineups and used the same witness in six separate cases, a person who was addicted to crack cocaine. In addition, Scarcella allegedly rewarded some of these witnesses who were already serving time by letting them out of jail to visit prostitutes.

Scarcella has maintained his innocence, saying in 2013 that he couldn’t remember many details of the cases in question and even going so far as to say he would help investigators go over his convictions.

Time is definitely an issue. Even though both the former and current Brooklyn DA have said they want to move quickly to get any people out of prison who were victims of a wrongful conviction, the process is a lengthy one.

In a New York Times article, wrongful conviction lawyer Joel Rudin was quoted as saying, “Do you know how long it takes to read a 1,000 or 2,000-page transcript? It takes hundreds of hours to fully investigate an old conviction. It’s a huge undertaking.”

In addition to going through the paperwork, investigators also need to often locate witnesses—a daunting task in the case of the alleged crack-addict witness—and then get said witnesses to admit they lied under oath. In some cases, investigators need to reconcile why certain convicts tell parole boards they are sorry for committing a crime they didn’t actually commit, something Derrick Hamilton adamantly refused to do. While the motivation behind this action would seem to be an attempt by an innocent person to get out of prison sooner, it’s still another hurdle investigators have to overcome.

For Brooklyn DA Thompson, it’s one more task he is willing to undertake in the name of justice.