Deseret News
FILE: New jail cells are almost ready for inmates at the new Salt Lake County Jail .

Over the last few years, the Rio Grande area has had a significant increase in shockingly visible drug dealing, violence and criminal activity. There are drug addicts shooting up in parks and on the sidewalks and they leave their used needles where anyone in the area can be accidentally stuck. Drug dealers populate the area. Addicts walk around like zombies and become aggressive without a reason. Even Pamela Atkinson is afraid of the area!

This week, Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City started to change the situation and arranged for 62 beds for drug and alcohol abuse treatment and 100 jail beds to take 150 of the worst criminal elements (mainly drug dealers) out of the Rio Grande area. But city police are still not allowed to arrest for less than a felony. Unless there are more jail beds, and with the threat of jail in the Rio Grande area, the dealers and criminal element may move to other areas.

There are still hundreds of beds at Oxbow Jail that are not being used. According to city police Chief Mike Brown, there are hundreds of drug dealers in the Rio Grande area alone. To open up more jail space requires Mayor Ben McAdams to submit a budget (due in October) to the County Council that provides funding to open up the unused jail beds and provide increased funding for various supporting departments such as the district attorney and medical and health (for mental health and drug and alcohol abuse screening and treatment).

Without the appropriate funding for treatment, the people who need treatment, unless locked up, victimize others. It is not a victimless crime when an addict steals property or discards used needles on the sidewalk. People who victimize society should be locked up. And since public safety should be a priority in government, Salt Lake County should open enough jail space to allow law enforcement to do its job and lock up the threats to society. Last year, McAdams took $9.4 million from the jail bond and used the money for nonjail projects. At the same time, McAdams claimed to make public safety a priority. The mayor should reverse his decision and return that money to the jail.

Recently, when the city police complained about having to keep handling violent criminals who should have stayed in jail, the sheriff complained the jail isn’t the issue. Many jailed inmates have significant mental and drug and alcohol abuse issues and the county cannot afford to treat them.

Obviously part of the solution requires funding for treatment through health care expansion or full funding of the Justice Reinvestment Act. But the budget for the jail should be enough to open up all the available jail beds for criminals who need to be locked up. Jail is an effective and valuable deterrent to crime. We may not be able to arrest our way out of it, but we should be able to jail those who victimize society. Operation Diversion’s crackdown on crime is long overdue. Hopefully it is not just a temporary election ploy.

Police officers agree to protect and serve and sacrifice. Police officers go to work every day frustrated and afraid that they may not make it back to their families. They still accept that. We should not accept that. McAdams should ensure that his new budget has enough money to open all the beds in Oxbow Jail to allow the police to do their job now and in the future.

George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City.