NCSL sat down with Utah Representative Eric Hutchings (R) in fall 2020 to learn how data and evidence have helped guide lawmakers’ criminal justice decisions and investments. A recognized champion of data-driven policymaking, Hutchings sponsored HB 348 in 2015, ushering in broad criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support.
The legislation enacted a number of evidence-based policy solutions that had been recommended one year earlier in the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice’s (CCJJ) Justice Reinvestment Report. In this interview, which has been edited for length, Hutchings explained how asking the right questions and relying on data have led policymakers to understand the root causes of pressing problems and invest resources wisely.
What brought you to advocate for data-driven decision-making—and what has kept you so engaged?
When we started this whole effort about six years ago it was shocking how precious little data we had. The criminal justice system impacts tens of thousands of people every year and what do we really know about them? We knew how many people were in prison, how many people have gone to prison this year, and whether it was trending up or down—but those are simple questions. To look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that we spend, it was distressing to realize how little we knew about what we were doing and why we were doing it.
We started breaking down who went to prison and why. The data rolled into one pie chart (see page 10) that drove our entire criminal justice reform package in the state of Utah. For the first time ever, we found that one-third of people went to prison because they had committed a new crime, one third went because they were violating parole, and the other third went because they were violating probation. When we got right down to the data, it was fascinating to realize that two-thirds of the people that we sent to prison that year had already been deemed not a big enough threat to society to be incarcerated. We had never really dug into the why. That’s when the system started to change. It dramatically altered the conversation, and it has never gone back. Because of that simple, original pie chart, we are so far ahead of our starting point.
We hear a lot about the importance of communicating clearly and realistically about evidence. How do you talk about evidence and what is most important for others to know about it?
If you’re going to try to convince people who are nervous about alternatives to incarceration—so many people have anecdotal stories about somebody in their family, community, or a constituent—you better have a really good reason why. Having good research from universities, from programs around the nation, and from organizations and think tanks allows for a different conversation. You can talk about improving community safety, improving outcomes for families, and doing it in a way that is smarter with the taxpayer dollar. Unless you have that evidence-based information behind you, too many people have too many horror stories for you to get any traction.
When we were talking with other legislators about evidence-based policymaking and about [diverting individuals away from incarceration to treatment], the question became “divert them where?” And that’s where the evidence became so critical—because when we started looking in the corners and turning the lights on, there were some questionable programs that were being run in the state of Utah. Now, if you want to run a diversion program, it has to be evidence-based. We aren’t telling people how to run their program, but there had better be some research and data behind why you’re choosing to run that type of program. If you’re going to spend taxpayer dollars, you have to back it up.
What does using evidence look like in the policymaking and budgeting processes in Utah?
We’re not telling people: thou shalt do this type of program. If you’re going to run a mental health program, there are industry experts—leaders in that particular science who agree that a good program has certain basic features—and if you don’t have those features within your program, the state of Utah is not going to endorse it and we’re certainly not going to pay for it.
We created a formal process through our Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. We felt like the evidence showed that people with expertise in that area were going to be much better at designing and monitoring programs than someone with a corrections background. We implemented a set of basic standards and required programs to track outcomes. Programs must be evidence-based, which means that research had to be done by somebody other than the person running the organization—there had to be peer-reviewed research.
How important is stakeholder engagement to Utah’s efforts and which partners have been important to bring to the table?
Legislators don’t have the time to go do our own research. We’re managing budgets, drafting bills and managing policy-related work. Having someone to come in and help us to gather that data and put it in an easily recognizable format has been critical. We partnered with Pew to look at what programs we were currently funding, and we relied on [partnerships with] universities and other organizations like NCSL and CSG Justice Center. Because of these partnerships, we have made more progress in the last decade than I think we’ve made in the last 100 years in criminal justice. It has been remarkable.
The state of Utah is very lucky to have the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which involves a broad group of criminal justice stakeholders, including corrections, law enforcement, the legislature and judiciary, victim representatives and behavioral health. We really tried to create a “who’s who” to look at everything from every different angle. I think the reason that Utah has been successful is because we involved a lot of stakeholders from the beginning—everybody was around the table and we just had this very open go at it. We said here’s the data, here’s the research, here are the types of programs we found in other states that can address this or that problem. I would strongly encourage any legislator to bring that stakeholder group together so you can have those ugly conversations outside of a committee room. It’s better to find out upfront that a group has an objection and not wait until you’re sitting in a committee meeting to find out. And then continue those conversations going forward, so that as new evidence comes in, you can present it to the whole group and get everybody’s buy-in before you decide on what the next action step is.
We’re talking to you today from your home and not your Capitol office—one of the many changes brought on by the pandemic. Can you talk to us about how COVID-19 has reinforced the need for data and evidence and if there are untapped opportunities to do more?
Right now, our jails are half empty. Nobody would have ever in a million years authorized a research project that would have said: What will happen if we take half the people that we have incarcerated and send them home? COVID is giving us a case study opportunity, and in my opinion, that’s going to be the case for everything that we’re now doing remotely. Several years ago, the state of Utah went to remote courtroom interpreters because we were spending a fortune on sending people all over the state to do language interpretation at hearings. We do that remotely now, and it’s so much more effective. We’re also doing remote hearings from the jails, so our transport costs are going down, safety of the officers is going up, and so is safety for the community. We believe that’s also going to help us have a positive impact on court capacity.
[These changes will have] a tremendous impact on the mental health side. For the first time, the state of Utah is getting aggressive about figuring out how to use telemedicine in that population, especially because we know that a massive number of people who are incarcerated also have a serious mental health issue. Through telemedicine, we can provide treatment in rural parts of the state. People now have the mindset that what we do has to be based on research. To continue any of these changes, we will need good research to back them up and cooperative partners to help us gather the data.
What other lessons are important to share with other legislators?
No. 1: Go and find some research expertise and get the help. No. 2: Bring in stakeholders—and don’t just ask for their data, and don’t just tell them you want to look at their programs, because they’ll see that as a threat. Be very careful to bring them in and explain that you’re here to help. You also have to stay very open-minded when new evidence comes up. Be prepared that we’re going to put a basic structure in place, and in the next session we’re going to have to tweak it. We’ve had to do that every year. As a legislator, you have to understand that it’s going to be ongoing.
I make a big deal out of gathering the data because simply looking for an evidence-based solution is only relevant once you have the information that allows people to be truly focused on a certain problem. If it’s too generalized, if it’s too big, people can finger-point everywhere and you really don’t get anywhere. Once you can start nailing down very specific causes of some of the problems you’re dealing with in your state, then the question is: How are we going to actually resolve that?
I think one of the other things that I would offer and where NCSL can help is to share when somebody comes up with a solution, like a dashboard for a jail or a prison. There are a lot of common platforms around the nation. We can really support each other; every time you feel like you have broken through a major barrier, having a platform to share it would accelerate everything and save huge amounts of money nationwide as people [in different states] go through similar efforts.