Salt Lake County corrections officials were forced into the early release of 97 nonviolent offenders over the weekend after a perfect storm of dual law enforcement sweeps and an already maxed Metro Jail facility left them no other options.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder warned the County Council that it can expect more of the same if proposed interim budget cuts, ratified by the board on Tuesday, are extended to his department at the same time a planned Oxbow Jail re-opening is moving forward.
"We simply have exceeded our ability through our normal release process to alleviate numbers when we see significant increases," Winder told the council Tuesday.
A week of higher than usual bookings, followed by focused sweeps conducted by the Salt Lake Police Department and Utah Highway Patrol over the weekend, put the facility precariously over the line, he said. Corrections officers used temporary holding cells to accommodate more than 100 inmates who could not be housed in regular cells.
Although no dangerous offenders were released, the sheriff called it a sign that a breaking point is nearing.
"It is a red flag. We are not putting dangerous people on the street … ," Winder said, "but I am certainly concerned about the integrity of the criminal justice system. What we did this weekend is make an arbitrary decision that 97 people who judges told us should be in jail (could) walk out."
Corrections bureau chief Rollin Cook told the council that prisoners released over the weekend included non-violent felons, persons with multiple DUI convictions and some who had bonds of $10,000.
Currently on the table, as part of the county's interim budget adjustments, is the extension of a countywide 5 percent hiring freeze to non-patrol employees in Winder's department.
All other county agencies, with the exception of the district attorney's office, were mandated to make a 5 percent reduction, via attrition and early retirement offers, in the 2009 budget. Those areas are being asked to bump that to 8 percent now, and the district attorney's office will have to achieve a 3 percent reduction.
After Tuesday's meeting, Winder said it is simply not viable to make a 5 percent work force adjustment (38 full-time employees) and look for further budgetary cuts when he has already cut 5 percent to meet 2009 fiscal goals mandated by the council.
"There is not an additional 5 to 7 percent in downward flexibility in the jail budget … ," he said, "especially when they're asking us to open a new facility. That just doesn't make sense. What business would say, 'Hey, expand, and by the way, we're cutting your budget.' That is counter-intuitive."
That expansion, reopening 184 of the 560 beds in the mothballed Oxbow Jail, was approved and budgeted for this year, with a planned opening date of July 1. According to the plan outlined during budget hearings last fall, it would provide much-needed space at the Metro Jail unit by moving out those prisoners with chemical dependency and mental-health issues into a treatment and rehabilitation program at Oxbow.
How to accomplish that in the face of still-declining county revenues was a question Council Chairman Joe Hatch put to the board.
"We are on the precipice of the next step," Hatch said. "Where are we going get the money to do what everybody says we're going to do when we have declining revenues and we're cutting like crazy? … These two things are occurring at exactly the same time."
That question will need to be addressed in short order, as the interim budget adjustment resolution passed Tuesday stipulates that plans must be in place by April 30.
In addition to the hiring freeze, other budget changes include a temporary suspension of the county's 3 percent contribution to employee 401(k) accounts and finding $17.1 million more in budget downsizing across all agencies.
As for addressing jail overcrowding in the near-term, Winder said finding ways to reduce the inflow of prisoners with a limited amount of jail space is the current priority.
"We've got a plan that we're going to put into place with the justice and district courts here very quickly that I think will start impacting our inputs," Winder said. "Systemic changes are called for."