LOGAN – Criminal justice reform isn’t exactly a hot-button issue in Utah’s ongoing political campaigns, but congressional candidate Darren Parry of Logan thinks it should be one.
Parry is running for the Democratic nomination to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop in Congress.
In the midst of the social unrest sparked by the recent death of George Floyd, Parry tends to see problems in the U.S. and Utah criminal justice systems first and foremost through the filter of race.
“Our criminal justice system is broken and our minority brothers and sisters are paying a price for those problems to a much greater degree than any other groups,” Parry said during recent a Facebook broadcast staged by his own campaign. “That’s the result of systemic racism and we need to address it.”
Utah’s incarceration rates certainly seem to support Parry’s observation. While white Utahns were imprisoned at a rate of 367 per 100,000 people – according to a 2010 U.S. Census report – the corresponding rates for Hispanics was 834, for Native Americans was 1,488 and for African-Americans was 2,711.
As a result, minorities are disproportionately represented in Utah prison/jail population. In 2010, for example, white Utahns (who made up 80 percent of the state’s population) were 64 percent of the state’s prison/jail population. That compared to Hispanics (13 percent of the state population), African-Americans (1 percent of state population) and Native Americans (also 1 percent of the state population) with 24 percent, 6 percent and 4 percent slices of the Utah prison/jail population respectively.
Not surprisingly, Parry sees statistics like these as proof that “ … our criminal justice system today treats minorities unfairly. Minority offenders are prosecuted more often and they often serve longer and disproportionate sentences.”
A first step toward correcting that problem would be the elimination of minimum mandatory sentencing laws, he says.
But minorities aren’t the only ones disadvantaged by the criminal justice system, according to Parry.
Like many Democrats, Parry attributes the nearly 500 percent explosion in the size of the U.S. prison population since the 1980s to the impact of War on Drugs declared by President Ronald Reagan. He argues that “90 percent of the people in jail today are for drug offenses and most of them are merely users.”
The liberal Prison Policy Initiative think tank calls that often quoted 90 percent “statistic” a myth, however. In a March 2020 snapshot, PPI analysts estimated that only about 20 percent of the U.S. prison population of 2.3 million was behind bars for simple possession of drugs. But U.S. authorities do report making up to 1 million arrests for other offenses annually that are drug-related.
“Addiction isn’t a criminal offense,” Parry insists. “We need to treat our citizens with addictions differently than we treat criminals.
“We need to provide them with opportunities to rehabilitate themselves by becoming healthy again. We also need to provide better access to mental health treatment … Without help, our troubled citizens too often end in the criminal justice system and it’s absolutely not their fault.”
Democrats and non-affiliated voters in Utah’s 1st Congressional District will choose between Parry and rival candidate Jamie Cheek of Ogden in primary balloting on June 30.