In Utah, judges decide criminals' sentences.

Or do they?An innovative program in the Salt Lake County Jail has some judges wondering who's really in charge of jail sentences.

When Sherman Jones went to jail in September, he had been convicted of criminal nonsupport and owed more than $75,000 in back child support. Judge Robert Hilder stayed most of Jones' jail time but did order him to serve 90 days in the Salt Lake County Jail.

An assistant attorney general touted Jones' case as part of that office's efforts to crack down on parents who don't pay child support. He said in a Deseret News article in November that the message needed to be sent that those who ignore their parental obligations really do face time behind bars.

But Jones didn't serve 90 days in jail.

Instead, 20 days after he was booked, Jones was released into a work program.

Hilder found out and signed a written order prepared by the attorney general's office that demanded the jail keep Jones in jail for three months.

But jail officials, backed by the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office, believe they have the right to manage the jail's population - including releasing offenders early.

Jones, they said, wasn't simply released. He was assigned to a work program that forces inmates to either be at home or work and be on electronic monitoring systems at all times.

If an inmate assigned to that program doesn't have a job, he or she works on the sheriff's work crews, which do work for other governmental agencies, like the forest service and the county, said Lt. Robert Beemus, who oversees the program.

Hilder declined to talk about specific cases but said it is a practice that troubles him.

"What the jail is doing, I think, is an honest attempt to deal with crowding," Hilder said. "But it's causing real concerns about who's really sentencing (offenders)."

Hilder said when he sentences a person to jail, he's considered other options, including home confinement and electronic monitoring. Judges have those options available through the Department of Corrections' Adult Probation and Parole programs.

The most alarming aspect to Hilder and other judges is that they aren't told who's being released to the work program until it happens. Judges decide jail is the necessary sentenced based on a number of objectives like punishment, rehabilitation, restitution and incapacitation.

"Sometimes the only way (people) are safe (from offenders) are when they're locked up," he said. "If we do (send them to jail), and (the jail) decides they don't really belong there, who's going to have confidence in the system?"

"Everyone needs to know what's going on," Hilder said. And what's going on, according to 3rd District Presiding Judge Leslie Lewis, is that "law enforcement is playing a quasi-judicial role . . . (sentencing decisions) are being made by an administration that's driven by economic concerns."

Beemus said jail officials have talked with judges, and while there are no meetings planned for the future, he hopes the two groups can work out their differences because both have the same objective - public safety.

The work program, in which 50 inmates at a time can participate, is a viable, safe way for the jail to deal with less dangerous inmates. And it is not, he emphasizes, a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"We like to think of it as an extension of the jail," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's 10 degrees below (zero) or 110 degrees. The inmates work every day, year round."

And as a career jail administrator, he said, he would prefer to see inmates working, even on county projects, than sitting in jail watching television or sleeping.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Chief Deputy Dean Carr said it's a way to supervise 50 additional inmates.

"There are 50 more beds we can put people in for the judges," Carr said. "Once they sentence an individual to jail it's the sheriff's responsibility to confine that person."

As for Jones, he was sent to prison in December.

In some cases, judges order jail sentences in lieu of prison, but Hilder said that may not be what happens in the future.

"That's another choice they may leave us with," he said.