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Should every guilty defendant go to jail? Salt Lake County seeks an alternative

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 7:38 p.m. MDT

FILE: A prisoner patient uses the sink in one of the medical cells at the Adult Detention Center in South Salt Lake.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Criminal justice research doesn't support the practice of sentencing every defendant to jail. But many criminal justice systems aren't nimble enough in terms of programs and policies to offer alternatives.

"Some people simply just do not deserve to be in jail and that's where they're being put for various reasons. We're talking lives of individuals, lives of their families and the generational aspects that occur go on and on," said Salt Lake County Councilman Richard Snelgrove.

Snelgrove made the comments while speaking in favor of ongoing efforts to refine the county's criminal and social justice system. This past week, the County Council accepted the Criminal Justice Advisory Council's Criminal and Social Justice implementation plan through 2014.

A key component of the plan is to establish a community corrections pilot program as an alternative to sentencing offenders to the county's Adult Detention Center.

Community corrections would provide a level of supervision that is a step down from jail yet more intensive than community placement. Jail inmates who comply with substance abuse or mental health treatment plans and behavior expectations could graduate to community corrections. If they meet the conditions of community corrections, they could move on to supervised community placement.

"In theory, systemically, what it will do, it will allow you to increase capacity, lower cost, provide therapeutic justice and treatment for those who are best susceptible for taking advantage of it. Those who cannot will be sanctioned and they will either step back in or step back out when they are being successful," Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told the council.

Community corrections would be another option for justice court judges when people violate probation. "Rather than defaulting immediately into the highest cost of incarceration, you can start with community placement, community corrections and then incarceration."

Gill said people convicted of the most serious and violent offenses can continue to expect to do jail time. "These are people who endanger and pose a risk to public safety and to my community."

But for low-level, nonviolent offenders, research suggests they — and the community — are better served by alternatives to incarceration that key on treatment and therapy, he said.

The implementation plan is the latest step in some two years of work to assess the current system. The county has hired a consultant to help develop plans to refine criminal justice practices. CJAC members include district court and justice court judges, the sheriff, district attorney, a legal defender, human services and criminal justice service directors as well as two members of the county council.

All parties have collaborated in the systemwide assessment and planning efforts. "We're small enough to pick up the phone and talk about these issues. We aren't afraid to talk to one another," Gill said.

CJAC director David Litvak said the reform effort has six primary goals: To reduce reliance on the jail; improve individual outcomes; protect public safety; increase system efficiency; support the goals of social justice; and to reduce long-term costs.

Those goals resonate with Snelgrove:

"The reason I support CJAC is that it leads ultimately, long term, to savings to the taxpayers verses incarceration. This is something I think any conservative would certainly get behind," he said.

While most members of the County Council support the key concepts of the plan, they have not approved funds to fully implement the changes. The council has paid for a consultant and to develop a pre-trial assessment tool to best match offenders to available resources.

County Councilman Michael Jensen said some council members "were a little nervous" that approving the implementation plan would be construed as giving the OK for the funding.

"From my perspective, I just didn't want to write a blank check," Jensen said.

Litvak and Gill assured the council that funding of the plan would come to the council through customary approval channels as the process evolves.

Gill said the discussions over revamping the county's criminal justice system are still theoretical. One option for the community correction pilot would be to house it at the Oxbow Jail. Presently, only one section of the jail is used to house jail inmates enrolled in substance abuse treatment.

The step-down/step-up approach of community correction makes far more sense than continuing to build jail beds, Gill said.

"To me, it's a more innovative and cost-effective way rather than locking everyone up at the county jail using the most expensive jail beds," he said.

As a prosecutor, Gill's primary interest is public safety, which means taking a hard line with violent offenders who pose a risk to the community but when appropriate, seeking therapeutic approaches that reduce recidivism.

"We jail more human beings more than any other nation. We're working ourselves into fiscal bankruptcy if we don't come up with better models," Gill said.

County Councilman Jim Bradley agreed: "If we can forestall building more jail cells we save a ton of money. That's the reward (of this approach). You impact people's lives, and you save taxpayers' money."

Email: marjorie@desnews.com

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