The Salt Lake County Jail may have released only 14 inmates last weekend because of overcrowding, but a city prosecutor thinks even one is too many.
"This is an absolute travesty of justice," said Salt Lake City prosecutor Sim Gill. "This is not the first time it has happened and the sad part is, it's probably not the last until the Salt Lake County Council takes seriously its responsibility of public safety."
Gill finds himself in an ironic situation: He is a strong advocate of alternatives to putting people behind bars and believes many individuals need other kinds of help. He advocates such things as drug courts, mental health courts, domestic violence courts, counseling, medication and other efforts.
But this latest move troubles him and he is quick to add he is not criticizing the sheriff or the jail employees.
In order to create enough space, people convicted of class B and class C misdemeanors have been released in the past. But last weekend, the jail included some individuals convicted of nonviolent class A misdemeanors, which are more serious.
Gill thinks early release simply because of a lack of beds sends a terrible message to crime victims, the general public and other potential criminals who might otherwise think twice about breaking the law.
"What tragedy are we going to have to have happen before our policymakers wake up?" Gill asked.
He said the county should open the now-closed Oxbow Jail to solve the immediate problem and then get some hard data about how many beds a county with a population this size really needs for a long-term solution.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller had no criticism for the County Council or the sheriff, but said new jail beds are necessary and early releases simply due to overcrowding should not occur.
"It's distressing to the prosecutors who work hard to put people in jail, it's distressing to the victims who are not being validated, it's distressing to the police officers who feel like their work is for nothing," Miller said.
"My concern is the message to the criminal community that they're not going to be held accountable for their crimes," she said.
Miller said she would leave the decision about where new jail beds should come from to the sheriff, but said the community needs to provide enough resources to properly support the criminal justice system.
Paul Cassell, a retired federal judge, well-known victim advocate and professor of law at the University of Utah, also believes that to release people early simply due to overcrowding is wrong.
"The root problems here is that there is inadequate jail space and that's something that Salt lake County, and other counties around the country, are going to have to address, or else crime victims will pay the price," Cassell said.
Letting people out because they are not a danger to society anymore is one thing, but letting them out just because there is not enough room is "not the right way to operate the system."
Third District Judge Robert Hilder, who is the presiding judge in that district, cannot discuss pending cases, but can talk about general policy matters. He expressed concern, but said he was encouraged by the cooperation among various agencies that have been working on this problem for some time.
He said the issue has been the subject of discussion with state courts along with various Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County agencies.
"The real concern is that we continue to work together to prevent this from getting worse and getting it under control," Hilder said. "We have to solve this problem cooperatively."
Hilder said the sheriff's office has been managing the jail extremely well and county officials have been working with the courts and others to solve this and other problems, such as finding better facilities for pregnant women.
However, he agrees there is a single, underlying difficulty: the county needs more jail beds.
G. Lynn Nelson, who is the sheriff of Cache County and heads the Utah Sherrifs' Association, said his county went through the same difficulties a few years ago and ended up building a new jail.
It cost $14 million to move from 70 beds to a 360-bed facility, but in the end, Nelson is convinced that it has actually reduced crime.
He referred to the famous "broken window" theory that if someone breaks a window in an abandoned building and nothing is done about it, then eventually all the windows will be broken, squatters will move in, people will start fires and crime will continue to escalate.
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