SALT LAKE CITY — Amid frustrations over the underfunded burden on county jails and behavioral health programs as a result of the state's recent drug offense penalty reductions, county leaders are urging Utah lawmakers to keep the problem in mind as they begin interim conversations this month.
Lincoln Shurtz, Utah Association of Counties governmental affairs director, presented the association's legislative priorities to the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee on Wednesday. Among them: an intent to ask for more state funds to offset the county-level impacts of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed in 2015.
The aim of the initiative was to slow the growth of Utah's prison population and reduce recidivism by reclassifying some felony drug crimes as misdemeanors. But because the initiative was passed without Medicaid expansion, Shurtz said county jails and behavioral health treatment programs have been overrun with no funds to meet demands.
It's a problem that has frustrated Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Sheriff Jim Winder, who attribute the Justice Reinvestment Initiative as a major contributing factor to the county's complex jail crisis.
McAdams has said if the reform continues to overwhelm counties without needed treatment dollars, it would leave county leaders no choice but to ask for the initiative to be rolled back.
Of the roughly 22,000 uninsured Utahns involved in the correctional system in need of behavioral or mental health services, up to 8,000 are currently ineligible for Medicaid, which amounts to $22 million in annual unmet needs, Shurtz said.
"That gives you an idea of the magnitude of just those who are touching the criminal justice system that have this need," he said. "As you can see, this is a huge issue and continues to grow in magnitude as we deal with the opioid epidemic here in Utah and throughout this country."
Last year, the Utah Association of Counties lobbied for nearly $17 million in funds for county behavioral and mental health services, but the Legislature appropriated only $6 million. Shurtz urged lawmakers to continue that progress.
"There has been a considerable effort made by this Legislature to meet commitments as it relates to (the Justice Reinvestment Initiative), but what I don't want to leave you with is the perception that we're done," he said. "While the effort was significant last year, there is certainly a lot more to be done."