Utah has one of the strictest policies when it comes to the enforcement of laws and prosecution of suspects. A recently passed bill lowering the legal blood alcohol concentration to the lowest in the nation has given residents the impression that stricter laws are soon to follow. However, some of Utah’s more rigid and antiquated laws are up for review and might be stricken out soon.
Overcriminalization in Utah
Utah has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, especially for non-white citizens. If you are Native American, black, or of Mexican descent, you should have a bail bond agent’s number on your phone next to your lawyer’s. The strict Utah laws, including the most recent DUI law, mostly affect the non-white (and non-Mormon) population. Antiquated crimes, like adultery and sodomy, are still listed in the books, and now stricter measures are targeting the alcohol-drinking residents of Utah. More than 10 percent of Utah prison inmates are detained for substance abuse and alcohol-related crimes. These crimes are much better treated with medication and rehabilitation rather than actual prison sentences. Mormons are known for their strict doctrines on sex and relationships and their rejection of alcohol and other substances they consider mind-altering. Some residents fear that the Mormon majority has too much power over the laws and are unduly targeting non-Mormons by controlling what constitutes legal behavior.
Race and the Utah Prison System
In the last four decades, Utah’s population has increased by merely 50%. Over that same period, the state prison population has increased by more than 500 percent. In this ever-increasing prison population, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are disproportionally represented. Latinos that make up a little over 10 percent of the population comprise 20 percent of the prison population. Native Americans, while constituting a mere 1 percent of the population, count for 5 percent of the prison population. Being black in Utah also makes you eight times more likely to be incarcerated compared to your white counterparts. Though culture, social structures, and upbringing can be part of the reason for the disproportionate incarcerations; judges are known to give harsher sentences to non-white convicts.
Late last year, Utah’s Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force proposed legislation that would repeal and decriminalize some of the more antiquated laws of the state. The archaic crimes of adultery and sodomy might get stricken from the official list of legal offenses, and some minor offenses are being downgraded to misdemeanors. Utah judges are also given more information regarding suspects during bail hearings, which can reduce the set amounts for non-violent offenders. The recently passed Criminal Justice Reform Bill also reduces sentences for all but gives judges more leeway when sentencing drug offenders. It and offers alternatives to prison incarcerations.
In the end, Utah’s prison systems are overburdened. Fortunately, recent legislation and changes in the justice system can change the situation while also delivering a higher standard of justice and creating a prison system that can actually reform and not merely punish.
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