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Salt Lake County commissioners will consider this week whether a non-public entity might better operate a new separate jail facility for misdemeanor offenders.

Six months ago, the County Commission ordered the existing jail not to admit certain inmates, so as to reduce overcrowding until plans could be formalized for building a new facility.That decision, police maintain, has forced law enforcement officers to give more citations and free suspects who should be locked up.

Salt Lake Police Lt. Norm Thompson cited several instances where officers, after wrestling with a drunken suspect who assaulted them, were refused by both the jail and detoxification center and faced the choice of either baby-sitting the person until he sobered up, or citing and releasing him.

"With those two misdemeanors (public intoxication and resisting an officer), the jail won't accept them (and) they're not safe to be loose," Thompson said. "We end up in the situation where we're liable if we turn them loose."

But overcrowding has been substantially reduced since the County Commission in February decided the jail will refuse inmates accused of violating city ordinances, if the facility already has more than 600 prisoners.

The Salt Lake County Jail held 550 inmates last weekend, about 150 fewer than when the commission handed down its decision, which was part of a six-part emergency plan to deal with overcrowding.

The idea was to let minor offenders go with misdemeanor citations, freeing up space for more serious violators. Those arrested for public intoxication are sent to detoxification centers.

"If detox is full and the jail won't handle them, then we're in deep trouble," Thompson said. He said police can't accept the risk of letting people who assault citizens and officers - drunken transients, for example - back on the streets.

County officials now are debating whether to turn over management and construction of the new facility to a private contractor for efficiency reasons.

Commissioner Mike Stewart said the three contractors' proposals include building and running the new jail; building the jail and letting the county run it; or having the county build it and contracting with a private firm to operate the facility.

Stewart said the big issue is whether the private sector costs are in line with what the sheriff's office says.

The sheriff's preliminary estimates of costs for running the new facility have come in significantly lower than the private bids. Commissioners have asked Nelson G. Williams, county budget director, to review the sheriff's estimate to ensure it considers all costs included in the bids.

If the sheriff's numbers pass that scrutiny, commissioners may be ready by next week to examine the bids and recommend whether a new facility should be publicly or privately built and operated.

Sheriff Pete Hayward, however, said he's still trying to figure out what the county is planning for the jail.

"I mean, he (Stewart) comes off the wall with things about `We got this thing ready to go next fall.' I don't even know what he's doing - talking about privatization on one hand and then building on the other hand. We don't know what he's doing," Hayward said.

"And all I know is I've got a lot of people that ought to be in jail that aren't there to keep the overcrowded conditions down. And it's concerning me and it's concerning the citizens of this county that we haven't got a place to put people who commit crime."

While Stewart said commissioners have heard stories about officers letting people go who should be in jail, he doubts it is a consistent problem.

Stewart credits judges, law enforcement agencies and officers with using creative methods to keep Salt Lake's overcrowding problems from becoming as bad as in other counties across the nation.

And the commissioner stressed officers have a variety of options when dealing with people. The detoxification center, pretrial release, and even driving a DUI offender home can free up jail space.

"There are a variety of ways to deal with the variety of offenses, and if you're not a creative officer, you"ll just say, `Throw them in jail,' " Stewart said. "A lot of cities are creatively responding to avenues rather than just throw 'em jail."

Sandy, for instance, cites and releases drunken drivers, Stewart said, saving $85 per person daily in jail expenses.

But Thompson said DUI offenders in Sandy have homes and people willing to take responsibility for them. That's not always the case in Salt Lake City, where more than 1,500 people call Pioneer Park, city streets and doorways home.

Stewart contends governments "can build jails and jails and jails and fill them up tomorrow.

"You just cannot build enough bars and bricks because judges feel the pressure to meet the public's concern about criminals and drunks."