Help may be on the way for the overcrowded Salt Lake County jail.

The Salt Lake County Council is leaning toward opening up to 184 beds at the now shuttered Oxbow Jail. The council didn't vote on the issue Tuesday, but a bipartisan group of council members indicated a need to open up the beds as soon as possible.

"We probably need to realize at this point that we need to do whatever is necessary to make sure our residents are safe," said Republican Councilman Mark Crockett, who asked that the beds be available in the next 90-100 days.

The move for extra jail space comes after overcrowding at the Salt Lake County jail forced officials to give 14 prisoners a get-out-of-jail-free card on July 27.

In the past, only prisoners convicted of class B or C misdemeanor offenses were considered for early release. But things got so tight in late July that Salt Lake County Corrections Chief Rollin Cook had to "move up to more serious levels of crime" — class A misdemeanors and district court commitments, as first reported by the Deseret News.

The freed prisoners include one jailed for possession of a controlled substance and one charged with joyriding, a charge typically stemming from auto theft. Another inmate released was charged with class A misdemeanor failure to pay child support.

That miffed Councilman David Wilde, who doesn't understand why someone who isn't paying child support is in jail at all.

"I'm not sure I think that's why we have a jail," Wilde said. "In my ideal world, this is not the way we deal with people in jail."

Sheriff Jim Winder has pushed to open the shuttered Oxbow Jail since he was elected in 2006. A move to start getting the jail ready to open again failed in November, when the GOP-dominated council voted 5-4 against a $600,000 budget request for equipment and other preparation needs.

Democrats believed it then, and believe now that Oxbow needs to be ready to open now.

"We've always said that Oxbow is there as a safety valve," Councilman Joe Hatch said. "Maybe the time has come that we open the safety valve or at least be prepared to open it quickly."

The county closed the 560-bed Oxbow Jail in 2000, shortly after the Salt Lake County jail opened.


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