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Either the federal government stops cramming so many federal prisoners in the Salt Lake County Jail or jail bosses will let them walk.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard has given the feds until March 1 to whittle the number of federal prisoners held in the county jail from this week's 132 inmates to only 75.If the feds won't do the whittling, Kennard will - by instructing jail personnel to turn away extra federal inmates.

"My real responsibility is Salt Lake County's citizens, not making sure the feds have all the beds they need," Kennard said to explain his ultimatum.

The county has a contract with the federal government to provide beds for 75 federal prisoners awaiting deportation or trail in U.S. District Court.

However, in recent years, the number of inmates has been creeping up. Most weeks, the number is closer to 140 than 75, Kennard said.

Kennard's threat is part response to a crisis and part a wily plan to expand the size of his new jail.

Kennard may find a way to house the extra prisoners if the federal government agrees to build at least half a pod in the new county jail that will be used to house future federal prisoners.

Better yet, fund a full pod. "That would give them 500 beds. They have a very real need now for 200 or 300 beds, depending on what they are doing," the sheriff said.

If feds come to the table on the proposed pod financing, Kennard may extend his March 1 deadline for kicking their prisoners out of the jail, he hinted.

It's a carrot-and-stick negotiating tactic that seems to be working. Kennard notified U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson, U.S. Marshall Dan Dotson and Immigration and Naturalization Agent Meryl Rogers of his deadline last week.

"They started pulling all the stops out," said a delighted sheriff. "They are hoping I won't follow through with my threat. I will."

Monday, he took a conference call from Sen. Orrin Hatch's staff to discuss ways to solve the problem.

The federal government pays the county $55 a day for each federal prisoner, Kennard said. It costs $65 a day to house them. But no one pays the county to house the county's own inmates.

By holding the federal government to its 75-inmate limit, the county will lose an estimated $3,500 a day in federal money.

"That will hurt us," Kennard conceded. But he'd rather lose the cash and be able to keep more local inmates in jail.

Federal prosecutors are worried because the defendants being held are dangerous. In a recent letter to the justice department, Matheson described federal prisoners housed in the county jail as bold, dangerous and indifferent to the consequences of their actions.

"There are defendants from the Ute and Navajo reservations in homicide and child molestation cases, defendants in an international drug smuggling and money laundering case, a defendant in an interstate domestic violence case, defendants in a Hobbs Act prosecution involving interstate armed robbery, and the list goes on," he wrote Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick.

The contract between the county and the federal government for the 75 beds expires 2004. "After that, they have no beds guaranteed them. That should worry them," Kennard said, offering yet another reason for the federal government to build a pod of his jail.

Right now, Kennard must start releasing inmates when the jail population reaches a certain point under a court-enforced consent decree. Until now, Kennard has been releasing state prisoners, keeping the extra federal prisoners.

He will soon start releasing both federal and state prisoners, he said. "Some of those federal prisoners are just property crime suspects," he said, describing them differently than Matheson did. "I can't be releasing (state) spouse abuse and domestic violence suspects, people who are really a physical threat to society, and keep these property crime suspects, like forgers and check writers."

Kennard is scheduled to discuss the problem again next week with Hatch's staff.