After a year of pleadings, meetings, hearings and negotiations, nonviolent felony inmates were processed into the Oxbow Jail for the first time this week.

About 35 inmates were moved from the downtown Salt Lake County Jail to the misdemeanant facility Monday and Tuesday, and others were scheduled to make the transfer to Oxbow's Pod B.Earlier this month, the South Salt Lake Board of Adjustments voted to allow certain nonviolent felony offenders to be housed in the facility. South Salt Lake officials had previously allowed the jail to be built in their city on the condition that only those charged with misdemeanors be kept there.

But because of overcrowding, the sheriff's office has been releasing some felony offenders at the downtown jail early while much of the Oxbow facility has remained unoccupied. Frustrated employees in the corrections field fought for what they feel is the obvious solution - transfer of some nonviolent felony offenders to Oxbow.

"There is great concern in the community with the words misdemeanor and felony. The only difference in most of them is monetary," said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Capt. Dan Ipson, who heads the Oxbow facility.

Theft charges, for example, can be misdemeanors or felonies depending only on the value of property stolen.

Ipson reiterated that the community surrounding the jail will not notice a difference. Jail officials don't want any potentially violent inmates at Oxbow either, since that jail is designed differently than other jails.

"You have kind of a community out here," he said, explaining that Oxbow has "open housing areas" with 62 men in a common area. Unlike other jails, the officers are also working inside among the inmates.

"It must be all people who get along together," the captain said. "It has to be a nonviolent setting in order to do that."

Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom and South Salt Lake Attorney Clint Balmforth have negotiated a detailed agreement that details what kinds of offenders can be housed at Oxbow.

Anyone convicted of crimes such as sex abuse, robbery, arson, burglary and more than 30 other specific offenses within the past four years is ineligible for Oxbow. The facility will allow certain offenders convicted of theft, forgery, bribery, computer crimes, negligent homicide, attempted sex abuse of a child, tampering with evidence and many other crimes.

The cost of opening the new Oxbow pod is nearly $700,000. Sheriff Aaron Kennard and Yocom have asked Salt Lake County commissioners to fund it, but commissioners aren't so sure.

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The commissioners agreed Monday to discuss whether to appropriate the money, but some said they first want to see a justification of the costs and to know whether work-release programs or other alternatives to incarceration would do as much without any added costs.

The sheriff did not wait for them to approve the funding because he felt he needed to open the pod right away, said sheriff's spokesman Rod Norton.

"He felt strongly about the issue and deemed it important enough and felt the citizens would back him," Norton said. The sheriff is using money from his overtime budget to fund the pod and relieve overcrowding at the downtown jail.

Deseret News staff writer Jay Evensen contributed to this story.

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