Crowding in Salt Lake County Jail - once expected to be remedied by building the new Oxbow jail in South Salt Lake - remains a potential problem, according to a consent decree approved by U.S. Magistrate Ronald N. Boyce.

Parties to a federal lawsuit about overcrowding at the Metropolitan Jail once were so confident the Oxbow facility would solve the problem they agreed that a cap on the number of inmates in the Metro Jail would expire as of June 15, after Oxbow opened.But admission requirements for Oxbow turned out to be strict - and as a result, only about 100 inmates are housed in that 300-bed jail. That wasn't enough to relieve the pressure on the Metro Jail.

So parties to the suit have agreed to extend the cap indefinitely - possibly for years.

"The order shall terminate upon the opening of a new Salt Lake County Metro Jail facility," the agreement says.

Brian Barnard, lawyer for inmates, said the county's corrections master plan envisions construction of a new jail in five or six years, which would replace the present Metro Jail.

Meanwhile, because of remodeling and other changes in the jail, the parties believe that more inmates can be accommodated without overcrowding. So the agreement raises the cap from 540 to 570 - plus about 90 more who could be kept in special facilities like the mental health wing, hospital unit and behavior modification units - for a total of 660.

Barnard said Salt Lake County was wise to accept the original consent decree, because suits by inmates dropped substantially when conditions improved.

"The county saved a bunch of money by not having to defend lawsuits," he said.

If the jail population exceeds the limits, "the Salt Lake County sheriff, in cooperation with the Salt Lake County attorney, shall release inmates in order to reduce the population to said limits," the agreement says. A plan to govern the releases envisions that the most dangerous inmates would be kept behind bars.