Overcrowding at the Salt Lake County Jail forced officials to give a lucky 14 prisoners a get-out-of-jail-free card last weekend.

In the past, only prisoners convicted of class B or C misdemeanor offenses were considered for early release. But things got so tight last weekend that Salt Lake County Corrections Chief Rollin Cook had "to move up into more serious levels of crime" — class A misdemeanors and district court commitments, according to an e-mail obtained by the Deseret News.

The freed prisoners convicted of "more serious levels of crime" include a few with possession of controlled substance charges and one charged with joy riding, a charge typically stemming from auto theft.

Cook would like to see all prisoners locked behind bars through the end of their sentences. But since that can't happen, Cook said, "I do everything I possibly can to make sure I'm not letting out violent offenders."

Overcrowding at the Salt Lake County Jail is nothing new. Jailers released prisoners on three different occasions last summer because of overpopulation issues.

Releases are up 11 percent since last year, Cook said.

"Right now I'm in survival mode. We need bed space and no one seems to want to give it," Cook said. "We continue to talk, but some action needs to occur. It's a tough time."

Officials have tried to figure out how to curb the population for a few years now, dabbling in alternatives to avoid jail time and other programs such as drug court.

Sheriff Jim Winder has pushed to open the shuttered Oxbow Jail since he was elected in 2006, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The recent overcrowding problems might be changing some minds, though.

"If we're to a point where we just can't take dangerous people off the street, then maybe we should talk about opening new jail space," Councilman David Wilde said. "I'm willing to consider it. I think the public looks at this as one of the highest priorities."

Councilman Randy Horiuchi said the council is leaning toward opening up the 560-bed Oxbow Jail.

Democrat Joe Hatch, also a councilman, said if the county needs more jail beds, he'd like to siphon some of the $685,000 the council budgeted for a criminal justice master plan into a solution to bed space now.

"We reserved far too much money for that master plan than we needed," Hatch said.

Councilwoman Jenny Wilson said the overcrowding and jail space issue could come before the County Council as early as next week.

"These early releases should concern us all a great deal since they affect the entire criminal justice system and all of our community," Cook wrote in an e-mail to county elected officials. "As our Salt Lake County Corrections chief, I will continue to manage our population the best I can and will keep you informed as these important situations develop."

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