By Christopher Zoukis
Utah has become the latest state push for treatment — not prison — for minor offenses, as part of an effort to offer those who without serious criminal histories and people with substance abuse and mental health issues a chance at turning their lives around.
While Utah was already making strides in state facilities, the effort will now expanded to cover federal charges and institutions, based on similar programs in California. The Utah Alternatives to Conviction Track – U-ACT- was designed by a team that included federal prosecutors, defence attorneys, probation agents, and judges, and is aimed at giving second chances, addressing the deeper causes behind crime head on, and reducing long-term costs to the court system and communities by reducing crime rates and recidivism.
The program is aimed at defendants without long criminal histories, who have committed minor, non-violent offenses, or for those struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. A guilty plea is necessary before admittance to the voluntary program, and admission is expected to be competitive. The program lasts between one to two years. Defendants are split into two different tracks — one for people who have little to no criminal history, with minor offenses such as credit card fraud, minor mail theft or minor narcotics or other fraud offenses; and another group for those whose crimes include committing robberies not involving firearms or specific acts of violence, mail theft or credit card fraud. Some offenses — including those related to child exploitation or pornography, larger-scale fraud, or drug offenses or involving violence — will automatically exclude defendants from program eligibility.
Program participants are closely supervised, and receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues, or are given education and training. They attend regularly scheduled program meetings, and depending on the track, may take part in community service. Those who complete the program successfully could see charges dropped or be put on probation, and in select cases, agree to plea to reduced charges before entering the program.
Programs like these ensure that the causes of crime are addressed, instead of forgetting the individual lives involved, and punishing based on the crimes alone. By addressing underlying causes — such as heroin addiction or untreated bi-polar disorder — the likelihood of an individual re-offending is reduced. In many prisons today, people who need treatment for addictions or mental health issues slip through the cracks, and the results of going untreated can be shown in much higher rates of recidivism. By giving defendants the tools to combat addictions, or to provide them with education, we are helping ensure they are more likely to support themselves and their families, which ultimately translates into safer communities. Funding alternative treatment programs also saves money. Human Impact Partners estimates that the cost of treatment is about a quarter of the cost of putting someone behind bars.
Expanding the availability of programs like this on both state and federal levels makes sense. Reduced crime, stronger communities, retention of family unity, and reduced spending on prisons is what is gained through a more compassionate approach using rehabilitative programs. Let’s hope that more states and federal institutions get on board with alternatives to incarceration, taking a closer and look at addressing the deeper issues leading to criminal behavior.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com