Recently, Sheriff Jim Winder presented a proposal to move Salt Lake County jail inmates to other counties’ jails. Unfortunately, as the sheriff pointed out, the potential 300 extra beds will not necessarily result in stopping the revolving door of criminals going in and out of jail on a regular basis.
The other issue that needs to be addressed is the inadequate funding for the district attorney to prosecute the criminals. District Attorney Sim Gill’s office screens 17,500 felonies a year. When Operation Diversion criminals were sent to the jail, the efforts to ensure that they stayed in jail for more that a few days overwhelmed the office. Most of the district attorney’s prosecutors have caseloads of 150 cases. The recommended caseload is under 100 per prosecutor. Some prosecutors have caseloads over 200!
To adequately and effectively prosecute felonies and misdemeanors and keep criminals in jail for more than a few hours requires more funding for the DA, not just funding for jail beds. If you ask the DA what he needs, he will say that Salt Lake County needs 18 new prosecutors and 500 beds. But the County Council is adamant that the DA has enough prosecutors. When 95 percent of cases are pled out without a trial, that is a sign that we need to hire more prosecutors.
The main reason for more jail beds is to lock up the drug dealers that are in jail for an average of about four hours. Despite claims that Salt Lake County Jail has been overwhelmed by the Legislature’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) that decreased penalties for drug crimes, drug dealing is a felony and should not be affected by the JRI. The short time in jail for drug dealers has been complained about by law enforcement for over five years, well before the JRI.
The best reason to focus on drug dealers is because if the dealers are not locked up and removed from the streets (for much more than a few hours or weeks), they will ensure that addicts get addicted and stay addicted. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on drug treatment is wasted when drugs are not just easy to get, but are pushed at graduates of addiction treatment programs. Police are now relegated to confiscating drugs when they are used openly.
Another public safety issue is the inadequate mental health funding in Salt Lake County. During the recession, the county’s mental health budget was significantly decreased and given to a private company. Many have complained that adequate funding has not been restored. The sheriff has said that up to 80 percent of his jail inmates have mental health issues (which can include addiction). Efforts to encourage the Legislature to pass Healthy Utah to help provide adequate funding for addiction and mental health treatment failed. The result is, even with jail beds, those individuals that need mental health treatment are quickly released to the street where they often self medicate with heroin or stronger drugs.
In the recent Salt Lake City Police Department 2017 Jail Bookings & Restriction Effects, the restrictions by the jail to limit bookings showed that the number in 2016 that could not be booked included 8,049 for drugs, 1,678 for drunkenness, 713 for forgery, 1,051 for property damage, 186 for prostitution, 3,903 for retail theft, 4,429 for simple assault and 3,311 for trespass. The 2015 arrests were 9,772, but the 2016 arrests were limited to 7,368 due to the new rules put in place early last year. The report said, “The inability to incarcerate offenders for these crimes creates an atmosphere of indifference, fosters an appearance of lawlessness, and destroys the community’s trust in law enforcement and pride in their neighborhoods.”
Until Salt Lake County adequately funds public safety and provides appropriate funding for the DA and for mental health treatment, 1,000 jail beds won’t help. Public safety is more than jail beds.
George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City.