Racial disparities in Utah prisons need study, lawmaker says

Nov 3, 2019, 10:15 AM
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Prisoners playing chess behind prison bars. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

OGDEN, Utah (AP) — A proposal to study how implicit racial biases may play into the disproportionate number of minorities in the Utah prison system is in the works for the 2020 legislative session.

Republican state Rep. Marsha Judkins of Provo told the Standard-Examiner she is working on a prosecution transparency bill that would require the collection of data about the arrest, charging, sentencing and parole decisions to determine how they may be contributing to racial disparities.

Of people newly sentenced to prison in 2017, 43% were racial or ethnic minorities, according to the Utah Sentencing Commission. Minorities made up just 20% of the population overall that year, census data showed.

Statistics like those point to clear racial disparities, but without specific data, it’s hard to determine what’s driving it, Judkins said.

“This blind spot is due to our lack of specific data on the intermediate steps in the criminal justice system,” she said.

The issue is also important because the prison population is rising faster than any other state but Idaho, she said.

Prosecutors have incredible power in the criminal justice system, but little of their work is public, Judkins said. They decide who to prosecute, what to charge when to plea bargain or dismiss cases and what prison sentences to recommend.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said he would not oppose an effort to gather data if it’s paid for by the state.

Rawlings said he believes the numbers would ultimately show the decisions made by prosecutors in his office aren’t clouded by bias.

Former public defender Jason Groth said gathering more information could be an important first step.

“It’s hard to be critical of yourself as an individual and your office as well,” Groth said. “It feels like you’re being called a racist.”

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Racial disparities in Utah prisons need study, lawmaker says