SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – On Tuesday, October 5, the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Identification released the Crime in Utah report for 2020. The report showed crime in Utah continues to increase.
“I was expecting to see something like this this year, as much as I was dreading it,” Daniel Strong Director of the Utah Sentencing Commission says.
According to the report, from 2019-2020, Overall crimes increased by 5.69%, property crimes went up 6.17%, robberies went up 5.78%, motor vehicle thefts were up 34.89% and homicides increased a staggering 44.16%.
“I was actually more surprised that the numbers weren’t higher than they are,” Sheriff Chad Jensen with Cache County says.
Many are left wondering what is to blame for the spike in violence across Utah, as well as the entire country.
“Is it some broader cultural psychological trend? Is it a concrete resource question? Those are the types of things that I’m really interested in digging into and figuring out,” says Strong.
Sheriff Jensen believes it is a direct result of the criminal justice reforms that Utah passed in 2015.
“Six years ago, in 2015, certain crimes were felonies and with that felony, if you were convicted of that felony, you had some skin in the game to be back to court. You had probation or parole or a lot of different things that kept somebody a little bit in check as much as they could when they decided to commit a crime,” Jensen explains.
He says the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI, has created a system that puts defendants’ rights over victims.
“We are just catching and releasing criminals, people who would make victims of other people and really not hold them accountable for anything,” Jensen adds. More details on the JRI can be found here.
Specific reforms in the bill included downgrading all first- and second-time drug possession convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.
“Misdemeanors don’t mean to somebody, what a felony means to somebody. That’s the biggest problem,” Jensen says.
While the Director of the Utah Sentencing Commission says this report is concerning, he believes there are several factors that need to be considered.
“I think there’s a tendency to look at anything that someone doesn’t like about criminal justice in the last ten years and say that was JRI this is JRI,” Strong tells ABC4. “The data from 2015 to 2019 showed very flat and even decreasing violent crime in some years. We didn’t see this huge spike until 2020. So that does make we wonder… along with the national data… can we put this on a 2015 bill that passed in Utah? Or is this the product of larger trends? Or is it something specific about 2020?”
Jensen says significant staffing shortages across the state is already plaguing law enforcement.
Additionally, a recent survey of Utah law enforcement showed that 58% are looking to leave their jobs and switch careers and 64% indicated they would advise their children against a career in law enforcement.
Without an emerging workforce, and with the decline of an existing workforce, he believes crime will continue to increase, and public safety will disappear.
“When you have agencies that are down half their staff, a quarter of their staff, who can’t respond to calls, what do they expect?” Jensen said.
In the meantime, he wants legislators to reevaluate the criminal justice system, something Strong is open to doing.
“It’s worth considering what we can do about a fairly small number of offenders that use a lot of our resources by going in and out of the system so many times. I think we’re interested in trying to figure out what we can do about that,” Strong said.
The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is holding a listening tour on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Details can be found here.