The racial disparities in Utah prisons have become so prominent that they warrant an examination into implicit bias, according to a proposal from state Rep. Marsha Judkins. The Republican lawmaker told the Standard-Examiner that she is working on a prosecution transparency bill that will collect data on how arrests, chargings, sentencings and parole decisions might be influencing the disproportionate numbers of minorities in Utah’s prison system.
Of those sentenced in 2017 in the state overall, 43.2% were minorities, the highest percentage in the past four years. The number is rising faster in Utah than in any other state except Idaho. Slightly more than 20% of Utah’s population is non-white, according to census data.
Because prosecutors have power to decide people’s fate with little public transparency or supervision, Judkins is advocating for research into how these decisions are made — and what impacts them.
“Prosecutors have incredible power and an almost complete lack of transparency, checks and balances and oversight over their decisions,” Judkins said in a recent Legislature’s Judiciary Interim Committee meeting.
Judkins’ bill would list various data points for county prosecutors to collect to determine whether implicit bias creeps into the prosecution process.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings told the Standard-Examiner that it is important to distinguish between discrimination and disparity. This study would help determine whether implicit bias against minorities is fueling this disparity, or whether it is the result of other factors.
The challenge of encouraging prosecutors and other officials to look critically at their practices is daunting because it requires people to examine the possibility that they hold implicit racist beliefs or biases.
Though sentencing plays a large role in racial disparities in prison, so too do other potentially racially-motivated factors such as who can afford to pay for lawyers and bail and who police arrest in the first place.
The state would foot the bill for the data gathering. Judkins told the Standard-Examiner that she would encourage the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to hire a full-time employee to focus solely on the data gathering. Though the study would cost the state money, running prisons costs it hundreds of millions.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2015, the cost of prisons in Utah was $152,778,962. Now, not only are there more prisoners, but also the construction of a new prison in the state that was supposed to cost $650 million now is expected to go about $130 million over budget. The ACLU reported in 2018 that if Utah’s prison population were cut in half, the state could save $250 million by 2025.
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