Americans like to get tough on crimes and on criminals. But they seldom want to pay the price for doing so. The reality of that dichotomy is hitting home in Salt Lake County.
In the recent past, the County Council has resisted calls to reopen the shuttered Oxbow Jail in favor of more alternative sentencing schemes for the least dangerous inmates. But that strategy is beginning to wear thin.
The county jail recently had to begin granting early releases to inmates guilty of serious class A misdemeanors because of overcrowding. The releases were few in number, but they represent a watershed. In a county that is growing rapidly, it is naive to think the number of criminals will not also grow. Eventually, even creative and effective alternative sentencing programs won't keep the county from having to find more traditional jail beds for the worst offenders.
Salt Lake County is lucky in that it already has the 560-bed Oxbow Jail, which was shut down in 2003 to save money but which has been maintained in decent shape. Sheriff Jim Winder has lobbied hard to get the county to reopen the facility. His predecessor, former sheriff Aaron Kennard, did so when he was in office, as well. It's time people listened.
Sure, it would cost millions per year to operate the facility. In 2006, the cost of reopening only a portion of Oxbow was estimated to be about $3.2 million per year. But that is the price people must be willing to bear.
This isn't the county's first run-in with early prisoner releases. But it is important to recall that problems have occurred in the past. For instance, in 1995, intense overcrowding pressures were blamed when the jail allowed a dangerous child rapist to leave before jailers could verify his identification. The man, who originally was from New York, had used a fake identification and had been picked up on minor shoplifting charges. At the time, a sheriff's spokesman said deputies would have been more inclined to question the I.D. under a less "pressurized" system.
Information travels more quickly today, but the pressure to release, if it intensifies, could lead to sloppiness.
We note with optimism that some County Council members appear to be softening toward Oxbow. If nothing else, the bad publicity that comes from sending inmates home early ought to persuade them.
After all, if a get-tough policy is believed to discourage crime, it follows that a jail with a revolving door would have the opposite effect. Criminals may not be the smartest people, but they probably notice such things.