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After five weeks of an almost invisible special election campaign, debate over Salt Lake County's proposal to bond for construction of a new jail suddenly has heated just days before a May 23 vote.

Tuesday's ballot will ask voters only whether the county should issue bonds to finance construction of a jail. But the facility itself - not the financing method - has become the issue.County officials have said a new jail is needed so badly that one will be built regardless of election results.

They have argued that because the county is proposing the cheapest possible method of financing for the project, a ballot-box rejection Tuesday will only cost taxpayers up to $3 million more when a jail is built.

But opponents charge such statements demonstrate the arrogance of county officials and their patronizing attitude toward the public.

Opponents want to turn Tuesday's election into a referendum on jail construction, the lingering issue of the valley's east side vs. west side and the sentencing policies of local courts.

Gov. Norm Bangerter and the Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have just recently joined the effort to encourage voters to pass the $12 million bond to build the jail.

ACLU acting director Michele Parish-Pixler said conditions at the jail are so bad that her office receives complaints almost daily about violence, poor sanitation, inadequate medical care and destruction of property.

Bangerter has emphasized the importance of the jail by pointing out that one of every four prisoners in the county jail was committed for a state offense. Parole and probation violations requiring incarceration have increased by more than 100 percent in two years, he said.

No one can reasonably argue the Metropolitan Hall jail at Fourth South and Second East is not overcrowded. The facility was built in 1966 to hold 300 prisoners. Expansions over the years have increased capacity to 544 inmates.

But in recent months the average daily population has topped 670. On some days, more than 700 prisoners are in custody. About one-third could be moved to minimum security, freeing jail space for felony offenders, officials say.

When the jail gets too crowded, jailers simply turn away police officers bringing in arrested offenders. In some cases, an officer must subdue a drunk who's assaulted him, only to find neither the jail nor the detoxification center will take the prisoner because neither facility has room.

The officer then must issue a citation and find a relative or friend of the offender who will take the drunk home. Otherwise, the officer may have to babysit until the drunk sobers up.

But jail opponents are not convinced by the county's arguments of need. The Tax Limitation Coalition has urged other sentencing alternatives be tried before any more jail space is built.

Another group, Taxpayers for Accountable Government, says a private corrections contractor could build and operate a new jail more cheaply than the county can.

Still another opponent faction, headed by South Salt Lake Mayor Jim Davis and West Valley City Council members, doesn't oppose construction of a new jail - they just don't like the county's proposed location for it.

Their rallying cry has been "The west side gets jails, the east side gets tennis courts," a reference to two existing west-side corrections facilities and a recent proposal - ultimately rejected - that Salt Lake County Recreation buy and operate the east-side Canyon Racquet Club.

County officials have lined up a solid list of election supporters, including the editorial boards of both metro newspapers and two local television stations, the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and valleywide groups representing local city councils and mayors.

But the backing of those organizations is no guarantee of victory Tuesday. Special elections are notorious for their history of poor voter turnouts.

Several years ago, less than 5 percent of the county's voters turned out for a bond election to provide financing for the county government center.

If the same thing happens Tuesday, something less than 3 percent of Salt Lake County's registered voters may decide how big a bill taxpayers will foot for a new jail.


(additional information)

Facts, figures on proposed jail in S.L. County

Cost: $12 million

Financing: 20-year general obligation bond

Tax impact: estimated $3 annually on $70,000 home

Location: 40 county-owned acres at 12th West and 32nd South on Jordan River

Size: 360 beds, expandable to 550

Inmates: sentenced misdemeanor offenders - mostly repeat drunken drivers, shoplifters, traffic violators and check bouncers - with no record of violence

Operating costs: $2.8 million annually, already budgeted

Opening: scheduled late 1990