Judges, not jailers, should determine when prisoners walk free. But that is not always the case at the Salt Lake County Jail.
A unique program, driven by overcrowding, has led jail officials to manage the facility's population by means that include early releases. Inmates do not merely walk free, but are assigned to work programs or required to be at home. Electronic monitoring is the norm.That is well, but there may be reasons those people should be behind bars that jail officials don't know about.
When a judge imposes a sentence, he or she considers options other than incarceration, including home confinement and electronic monitoring. Those choices are available through the Department of Corrections' Adult Probation and Parole programs.
A judge decides jail is necessary based upon several criteria such as rehabilitation, proper punishment, restitution and incapacitation. They are not told who is being released to the work program until it happens. Sometimes offenders are a threat to themselves or someone else. Turning them loose, even with monitoring, could create undue risks.
A key element apparently lacking in all of this is effective communication between jail officials and judges. Everyone must be on the same page to maintain the integrity of the system, to ensure public safety and to retain the confidence of the community. Having law enforcement play a quasi-judicial role without direct judicial involvement undermines all of those.
That does not mean the work program is without merit. It appears to be a viable, safe way to deal with less-dangerous inmates while freeing up desperately needed beds for other offenders. Putting prisoners to work whenever possible compels their contribution to society and helps them assimilate back into the mainstream.
But judges or, preferably, an independent panel or commission akin to the Board of Pardons, should still give authorization and input before releases are granted. That would help avoid potential serious problems from someone being released improperly.