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County sheriffs seek more funds for jails

Imagine you have $2 and two children. You need $3 to feed one child the way you've normally fed the children, and there's no hope of getting $6.

Which child would you feed? Would you give each child a little something, even if it wasn't enough? How about changing the diet of the children in hopes of finding cheaper or more filling food?Those are the sorts of decisions faced by a legislative appropriations subcommittee concerning county jails. However, instead of two children, the subcommittee is trying to maintain two programs.

County jails house two types of prisoners for the state: those put in jail by a judge as a condition of probation and those in jail because of contracts with the Department of Corrections.

In the case of contracts, the jails have a choice in taking the prisoners. In the other case, jail administrators have no choice. But the contracts help the jails, especially those in rural areas, pay for their facilities.

Both items are funded through the Department of Corrections, which passes the jail reimbursement money on to county governments.

During a hearing Monday afternoon, legislative fiscal analyst Bill Dinehart, who recommends the Corrections budget to the Executive Office, Criminal Justice and Legislature Appropriations subcommittee, recommended no increase in jail reimbursements and a $2 million increase for jail contracts.

The subcommittee was scheduled to vote on that, and the rest of the Department of Corrections budget, Wednesday afternoon. Department, county and jail officials were also going to ask legislators to consider studying the issue during the coming year.

Corrections Director Pete Haun didn't want to look this $2 million gift horse in the mouth, but he said he needs $5 million for jail contracting to have enough beds for his growing inmate population.

Last year, that population grew 14 percent - the sixth fastest in the country. He also supported the counties' efforts to get paid for housing inmates put in jails by judges.

County sheriffs packed the meeting to explain their case for getting reimbursed for housing inmates placed in the jails by judges. Dinehart recommended no funding increase for that program.

Dinehart said he wants legislators to understand that the state currently spends about $14 million on county jails and, if they are funded to the levels requested by the counties and Corrections, then the state would spend almost $25 million on jail beds.

Speaking for the Utah Sheriffs Association, Millard County Sheriff Ed Phillips said all the program does is reimburse jails for inmates they are legally required to house.

As for jail contracts, he said, "Contracting beds (with county jails) is without a doubt one of the biggest bargains the state gets."

Rep. Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, asked why the state should continue to rent beds from counties when he thinks it's more financially sound for the state to own its own facilities.

Curtis said he was concerned that, in the future, county jails that now rent beds to the state would need them for their own inmates and prison inmates would have to find alternative housing.

That's not the case, sheriffs said. In fact, in places like San Juan County the rented jail beds are a source of income and jobs for the area, said San Juan Sheriff Mike Lacy, who is remodeling his jail to house more state inmates.

Bottom line, Phillips said, is that no matter if the state, county or city pays to house prisoners, the money comes from the same pockets.