From longer sentences for drunk drivers, to criminalizing “lewd” actions in public places, lawmakers passed 35 bills this session that either created a new criminal offense, expanded the definition of a current crime or enhanced existing penalties and fines.

Some lawmakers say it’s an attempt to hold criminals accountable and stop a “revolving door,” where perpetrators with a lengthy rap sheet are arrested and released prematurely, only to re-offend.

Others say it’s a knee-jerk reaction to concerns around crime, creating new offenses and enhancing penalties that will only increase the state’s incarcerated population and recidivism.

In 2015, the Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, an attempt at criminal justice reform that reduced penalties for nonviolent offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor. That included drug crimes and theft, or incidents where there was a strong mental health component.

The initiativewas based on research suggesting Utah’s jails would overflow if the state didn’t instead focus on treatment and rehabilitation — the more people go to jail, the more the state has to spend. Plus, for some crimes, increased penalties actually lead to higher rates of recidivism.

Stock image of Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County, Utah | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

But according to Steve Burton, director of the Utah Defense Attorneys Association, the state never truly completed the initiative. Instead, the state reduced certain penalties, but never put enough funds into treatment and rehabilitation. And in the years since, the legislation has been criticized by some lawmakers and law enforcement.

“The perception from the law enforcement community was that JRI caused the problem because we were taking it too easy on criminal defendants,” Burton said.

That perception is still alive on Capitol Hill, Burton said. Data suggests overall crime, at least in Salt Lake City, is in decline — but since the initiative, there’s been what he calls a “one-way ratchet” in legislation addressing crime by increasing penalties. According to a report from the Utah Defense Attorneys Association, since the JRI passed in 2015, lawmakers have introduced 171 bills that created a new criminal offense, 85 of them passed.

In that same timeframe, just nine bills were introduced that repealed a criminal offense, with four of them passing.

Though not as lopsided, lawmakers have followed that same trend with increasing penalties for crimes, whether upping a fine or mandating longer sentences. Since the 2015 legislative session, there have been 110 bills introduced that would increase penalties, with 70 passing.

Meanwhile, 44 bills reducing penalties were introduced, 30 of them passing.

Of the 27 bills introduced this session creating a new criminal offense, lawmakers passed 15:

HB 211 penalizes anyone who falsely tells police they ingested drugs before an arrest.
HB 156 makes damaging or disabling internet, phone or electricity services in the act of a burglary a crime called “interruption of a connected service.”
HB 225 creates an offense called “unlawful kissing of a minor,” punishable by a class A misdemeanor or in some cases, a 3rd degree felony.
SB 235 imposes a misdemeanor on anyone operating a railroad who fails to report injured or killed livestock.
HB 52 would impose a “fine of not more than $5,000 for a person who sells a cannabinoid product that is not registered” by the state.
HB 257, which restricts transgender access to some bathrooms, “enacts a criminal offense for loitering in a restroom, shower, or locker room where the general public has an expectation of privacy.”
HB 276 would create a criminal penalty “for unauthorized use or distribution of an investigative report.”
HB 366 moves “aggravated escape” — defined as using a weapon or causing injury while escaping official custody — to its own statute.
HB 478 criminalizes violations of the state’s animal care requirements.
HB 531 expands the definition of “unlawful use of a laser pointer” to include harming occupants of a moving vehicle or “an aircraft or the occupants of an aircraft.”
HB 537 criminalizes the sale, import or installation of a “counterfeit or nonfunctional airbag” in a vehicle.
SB 95 is a lengthy recodification bill, meaning it rearranges state code. It includes a line making it illegal for a parent or guardian to consent that a minor “enter into a marriage prohibited by law.”
SB 104 creates a criminal offense for anyone who disables a content filter on a device belonging to a minor.
SB 179 prohibits the storage of flammable or explosive materials “directly beneath a bridge, overpass, viaduct, or tunnel owned or operated by a highway authority or large public transit district.”
HB 245 makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate or deprive an employee of benefits because of their status in the armed forces.

In 2019, lawmakers passed 18 bills creating new criminal offenses, the most of any session since the JRI, according to data compiled by the Utah Defense Attorneys Association. This past session was a close second.

File photo of Purgatory Correctional Facility near Hurricane, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

In 2024 lawmakers also passed 12 bills increasing penalties for certain crimes, including lewdness in front of a child, making false threats to public schools and impaired driving. Eight additional bills expanded the definition of a current criminal offense.

Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, says there’s a general sentiment among lawmakers that the “pendulum has swung too far to a lack of accountability for criminals.” This session, he said, the legislature tried to push back.

“If we have a criminal justice system that does not keep innocent people safe from repeat violent offenders, it’s a failure. Period. And that’s what we’re trying to make sure does not happen,” Clancy said.

Clancy, a police officer when the legislature is not in session, said some of that “lack of accountability” is a result of the JRI, which he said was incomplete.

“We reduced a lot of penalties for crimes and we didn’t increase any sort of exit destinations, invest more in services, things like that,” he said.

The trend over the last several years toward increasing penalties and creating new crimes is troubling for Burton. He clarified that he doesn’t oppose every bill listed in the Defense Attorney’s Association report — but overall, he wants to see more funding and legislation aimed at rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.

In this file photo, the Utah State Capitol stands in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 23, 2020 | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

“The easiest way to appear that you are addressing crime, or to feel that you are addressing the situation, is to increase penalties. And most of the time, it’s the politically popular thing to do,” said Burton. “If we know that 95% of people we put in prison are getting out, then putting them in prison for a couple extra years is nonsensical, it is not an effective way to reduce crime.”

Sen. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Millcreek, said the legislature is sometimes too “reactive” when passing criminal justice and public safety bills. A former prosecutor who runs a number of bills focused on crime and state code, Pitcher said the 45-day session doesn’t allow for much nuance.

“Sometimes we react to one incident that may have occurred, or maybe one of my colleagues has a constituent that had something happen. And the response is, ‘we need to address that, we need to increase the penalty,” she said. “I wish we were a little more thoughtful, because if you indiscriminately raise everything, nothing means anything,”

Culture wars seep into the Legislature

Pitcher sponsored a bill this session that would raise the monetary threshold for certain property crimes to be more aligned with inflation. For some crimes, the amount of money stolen dictates how severe the punishment will be — stealing $5 in candy will probably be a misdemeanor; stealing $5,000 in jewelry is probably a felony.

“Over time, because of the impacts of inflation, we’re going to begin to prosecute property crimes more severely than we are the plethora of other criminal offenses,” she said. “My goal was to raise the monetary threshold to the level of inflation …. and frankly I didn’t think it would be met with this much resistance.”

The bill, SB128, never passed. When asked whether culture war issues and the national narrative around retail theft and rising crime had any impact, Pitcher said: “absolutely.” Many of her colleagues didn’t want to be seen as soft on crime, especially retail theft.

That sentiment was echoed by House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who said “culture war issues are alive and well” in the Capitol building.

Romero, who told Utah News Dispatch it was the most difficult session of her tenure, sponsored a number of bills directed at victims of sexual assault — that includes a bill preventing prosecutors from making survivors undergo a lie detector test, or a bill directing Utah police departments to establish a set of best practices for investigating sexual assault.

“I wouldn’t say it’s difficult to pass bills around sexual assault, but there are more hoops I have to jump through,” she said.

Written by KYLE DUNPHEY, Utah News Dispatch.

Utah News Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Utah News Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor McKenzie Romero for questions: Follow Utah News Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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