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Two consultants hired by Salt Lake County said Thursday the county is begging for a lawsuit and other problems if crowding in the Salt Lake County Jail isn't dealt with immediately.

"The Salt Lake County jail system is in a crisis. It's at the point where the next step would be a federal court order to limit the jail population," said consultant David M. Bennett.Applying standards set by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the downtown jail has enough room for 392 prisoners while the facility has a current population of more than 720, which exceeds the county's own capacity rating of 544.

"It gets worse from there," said Dennis Liebert, president of Liebert & Associates of Boulder, Colo. The jail's population has doubled since 1978, but jail staffing levels have increased only about 30 percent. As few as 15 deputies may be watching the activities of the entire jail population on a given shift, he said.

Weekend crowding in some parts of the jail is so bad that prisoners are being bunked in hallways, Bennett said. "I don't believe judges know they're sentencing people to sleep in a closed-end corridor that any fire marshal would close in a minute, if he saw it."

A 125-bed expansion planned at the jail and the 350-bed misdemeanor offender facility the county is trying to get approved for construction in South Salt Lake would offset most of the current crowding problem, but would still leave the county in a deficit for jail space now and in future years. Estimates by Liebert and Bennett indicate the county will need between 1,647 and 2,300 jail bunks by 2010.

The situation could be worse and soon will be, without changes, the consultants told the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council Thursday. Jail space is so limited in Kent County, Mich., that no prisoners are booked into the jail unless they are booked on felony charges, the consultants said. Sentenced misdemeanor offenders are free on the streets - waiting to serve their sentences at such time as the sentencing judge learns jail space is available.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Pete Hayward was not at the meeting but took some criticism for daily violating a county resolution that prohibits the jail from taking prisoners above a prescribed cap.

But County Attorney Dave Yocom said after the meeting that Hayward is caught in the middle of the problem. He said Hayward has to work with all of the law enforcement agencies in the valley that want to book prisoners into the jail, and downtown businesses want regular troublemakers off the streets and away from their stores.

Yocom said the commission should accept some of the blame for a lack of planning that led to the current jail crowding. "The commission failed to take the action 10 years ago to solve the problem," he said. "It's not the fault of the sheriff that we don't have enough beds at the current time."

Yocom said the commission had the chance 10 years ago to build a new facility at Decker Lake in West Valley City but chose instead to make three minor expansions at the downtown jail.

Short-term solutions recommended by the consultants include establishing and enforcing a cap on the jail population, reducing sentence lengths and exploring the feasibility of a temporary facility and more closely monitoring prisoners released before trial to make sure they appear for court proceedings.

Long-term solutions recommended included adding 24-hour magistrates or night and weekend courts, adding alcohol and drug detoxification and other treatment resources and improving the criminal justice system's information and coordination abilities.

The county should also consider creating a cabinet-level position for a criminal-justice administrator, Bennett said.

Bennett and Liebert asked the 30 or so judges, attorneys, law enforcement and other officials at the Criminal Justice Advisory Council to make recommendations about whether population and prisoner estimates used to determine the jail space needed 20 years from now are thought to be high or low. The group will likely hold a half-day work session in late September or early October to further refine the projections and explore solutions.