How much support would Salt Lake County residents give Operation Rio Grande when they are asked to pay more in taxes for a new jail?
No politician, Democrat or Republican, likes to use the T-word in Utah, and even though we’ve all seen a fair share of tax increases in recent years, it’s harder to make the argument when it concerns a jail or the homeless.
You can make a good case for more money to build schools, even if voters don’t always agree. Schools provide something positive. Jails take care of problems a lot of people think should have been prevented in the first place, beginning in school.
But two county sheriffs now have made impassioned pleas for more money — Jim Winder while on his way out the door to become police chief in Moab and his replacement, Rosie Rivera, who told the Deseret News the county needs at least $30 million for new pods at the metro jail, along with $9 million to reopen the long-closed Oxbow Jail.
My initial question was a bit misleading. This isn’t just a homeless issue. Operation Rio Grande — the grand cleanup of crime related to homelessness downtown — has only exacerbated jail overcrowding, which has existed for a while. And the state bears a lot of the blame for that.
If you have started seeing homeless camps in places you hadn’t seem them before, you’re not alone. On my daily TRAX commute, I see sleeping bags near the Ballpark Station that I didn’t see before the crackdown started. In recent news reports, people in various neighborhoods have complained about makeshift camps in parks.
Without any real evidence, some are blaming various crimes on a crackdown that forced drug dealers to leave the Rio Grande neighborhood in search of better places.
And the revolving jail door has started spinning again. As the Deseret News reported recently, a lot of people arrested in the Rio Grande area with outstanding warrants for retail theft or drug offenses are being carted to jail, processed and quickly released again.
As of last Tuesday, the News reported, 1,579 people had been booked as part of Operation Rio Grande, and 1,305 had been released.
If you remember politicians promising that this time the bad guys were going to learn police meant business, you may be wondering about all this. While the worst criminals may have been taken away, the rest may well be wondering what has changed, other than that they are learning to go somewhere other than the Rio Grande area.
But to be fair to the county, it shouldn’t be dealing with this alone. Much of the blame for overcrowding lies with state lawmakers, and it has little to do with the homeless.
Lawmakers passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2015, hoping to treat people with drug addictions with more compassion. The law reclassified many felony drug crimes as misdemeanors and was supposed to provide abusers with treatment and supervision to help them overcome addictions.
But lawmakers never provided the money or programs needed for treatment and supervision. The result has been a flood of drug abusers in county jails — people who in the past would have gone to state prison.
Rivera said jail nurses already were handling about 300 inmates at a time going through withdrawal from opioids and other substances. But with the Rio Grande sweep, that number now is about 700.
Of course, it’s good to help people through withdrawal. That’s a big step toward recovery. But Rivera said mandatory overtime is leading to burnout among jail staff. An effort to contract with other counties to take some of the burden hasn’t helped much, apparently.
Next year, voters already may be facing a ballot measure asking for a hefty statewide tax increase for schools. A jail bond on top of that might not fare so well.
But this problem won’t go away when new homeless shelters are in place. With the county’s population booming, the need for more jail space almost certainly will grow. Because state lawmakers helped cause the problem, it only right they help fund the solution, too.