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Privatizing Utah prison system an option as relocation bill passes

Published: Thursday, March 14 2013 9:15 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Privatizing Utah's prison may be among the options a new committee considers as it evaluates bids to move the current facility.

And Gov. Gary Herbert said government should always look at privatization, including in the corrections system.

"I think we should look at it. I'm probably not inclined to go with a privatized jail, but we should consider it," Herbert said in an interview as the 45-day legislative session ended Thursday.

"The private sector tends to be a little more efficient. They tend to use their own money. They're a little more creative and innovative," he said.

After much debate and eight versions of the bill, the Legislature ultimately passed SB72, which creates the 11-member Prison Relocation and Development Authority to oversee what would be a massive undertaking to tear down the 62-year-old facility and build one at a new site.

The committee has the authority to request and evaluate proposals for construction of a new prison and make recommendations to the Legislature. One of the sticking points was whether the committee should consider privatizing the prison system with the move.

Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, the bill's sponsor, said the measure allows the panel to look at the concept but doesn't require it.

Herbert said he's concerned about low bids coming in from private prison companies.

"If we need four guards, I don't want two guards just as way to cut the corner on the cost," he said.

Longtime community activist Steve Erickson said the last time Utah considered moving and privatizing the prison ended in a fiasco, with the state spending $2 million and then scrapping the idea.

Lawmakers, he said, should have eliminated the option due to that experience and problems with private prisons in other states. Erickson suggested the state commission an independent analysis of the current prison system to see if relocating has merit.

Last December, a committee — made up of legislators, local government officials and business leaders — endorsed moving ahead with building a new prison and redeveloping the land. It concluded the relocation is economically feasible and redevelopment could eventually bring $20 billion and as many as 40,000 jobs to the state.

The cost for moving and building a new prison is estimated to be as much as $600 million. Tooele, Box Elder and Juab counties are possible locations.

The makeup of the new prison committee underwent multiple changes during the session. In the end, lawmakers settled on the governor getting to appoint six members, the House and Senate two each and Draper one.

E-mail: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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