By Chris Zoukis
The State of Utah is starting to feel the strain from harsh sentencing laws targeting sex offenders that it passed in recent years. While most states are enjoying a decline in prison populations in the last decade, Utah’s counts are rising, as sex crime offenders fill up 42 percent more beds than they did 10 years ago. Sex offenders now make up one-third of the state’s prison population, the largest group of offenders in the state’s system, according to research compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In 2012, lawmakers passed tough new laws calling for 25 years to life mandatory sentences for child rape, and other child-related sex crimes carry harsh penalties as well. The top two offenses for prisoners in Utah are now aggravated sexual abuse of a child and sexual abuse of a child, sentences for which having grown by 87 percent and 21 percent, respectively, since 2004. According to Utah Board of Pardons and Parole member Clark Harms, the number is going to keep rising, until the state’s prisons will have be reserved exclusively for killers and sex offenders. “If that’s where we want to be, fine,” he told the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
The harsh sentencing schemes filling up the prison system exist despite data that shows that 78 percent of sex offenders imprisoned in Utah had no prior convictions. According to a 2003 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, sex offenders are less likely than other offenders to be rearrested for any crime after their release: only 5 percent of sex offenders were arrested for another sex crime within three years, and for child molesters it was only 3 percent, according to the same report.
Harms told the committee, “I’m not saying that we ought not to punish. But I’m saying that [sentences of] 25 to life, or even a presumption of 15 to life for regular first-degree sex offenses, you’re going to have to, eventually, the board is going to a point where we have to start letting everyone else out because all we have room for are murderers and sex offenders.”
This article recently appeared in Prison Legal News in November 2016.