Utah lawmakers haggled for three hours Tuesday over who should house - and be paid to house - convicted felons. They eventually approved a motion to consider the issue during the 1999 session.

The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee met to hear testimony from law enforcement, corrections and sentencing officials. Discussion focused on the differences between jail reimbursement and jail contracting, as well as sentencing and jurisdiction issues surrounding the two.Through jail reimbursement, a judge sentences a felon to jail as a condition of probation. Counties are obligated to house the prisoners, but the courts retain jurisdiction. Reimbursement rates are set by Department of Corrections statute. Currently, the rate is 80 percent of the prison operating cost, or $52.50 per day per prisoner.

Salt Lake County Chief Deputy Dean Carr relayed Sheriff Aaron Kennard's recommendations, saying jail reimbursements should be taken out of the Department of Corrections' jurisdiction and placed in the finance department instead. The way it is, Carr said, the county's budget is "artificially inflated."

Third District Judge Ronald Nehring countered by saying he was concerned that changing the system would jeopardize the courts' ability to apply proper sentencing to felons.

"None of my responsibilities is greater than my responsibility to sentence. My concern is that whatever is done not compromise the work of the Utah Sentencing Commission. Victims' primary contact with the court is through the trial judge. And when the time comes to sentence, the victim ought to be able to look to the judge for accountability."

The bulk of the meeting focused on jail contracting. In that program, a judge sentences a felon to prison, but through a state-county contract, the prisoner is housed in a county jail. County participation is voluntary, and the Board of Pardons and Parole assumes jurisdiction over the inmate. The housing rate is determined by contract, and currently is about $48 per day per prisoner.

Pete Haun, director of Utah's Department of Corrections, voiced his support for the program. Though he said there are some drawbacks to contracting, he proposed several advantages:

- Jail contracting is cost-effective. Jails are paid only when beds are being used.

- Contracting reduces the need to build additional prison facilities or hire more prison employees.

- Contracting allows prisoners to be placed across the state, closer to their support networks and families.

- Jails can implement educational, occupational and behavioral therapy programs in their facilities.

- Inmate protection is enhanced. States often have placed high-risk inmates or inmates in need of special protection in jails instead of prisons. Jails are, Haun said, capable of providing these services as well as or better than prisons.

- Rural economic development is served. Jails provide a rural economy with jobs from a number of sectors, including food services, utilities, social services and others.

Officials from Duchesne and Beaver counties urged the committee to support jail contracting.

"We want to make our jail the best jail in the state of Utah," said Duchesne County Sheriff Ralph Stansfield. "If an inmate comes to our jail from the state prison, he'll not miss a beat."

Stansfield said the Duchesne County jail offers inmates life skills, sex offender and work programs. The facility also provides a needed economic boost to the neighboring communities.

"We have the highest unemployment rates in Utah," Stansfield said. "This jail is kind of like a little business for us," providing 25 new jobs in the jail facility alone.

Haun outlined three disadvantages:

Though progress is being made, he said, some jails may be behind in providing adequate programs for inmates. Several jails, including those in Duchesne and Washington counties, have excellent programs in place.

Jails do not have the same level of medical and transportation capabilities as prisons, Haun said. But, that could be resolved by using outside sources.

County officials seldom want high-risk, maximum security prisoners in their facilities. But, Haun said, nearly 70 percent of offenders have histories of prior assault or violent behavior. So, there may be conflicts when it comes to the types of prisoners county jails are getting, he said.

Any resolutions are contingent upon legislative funding. Without support from lawmakers, contracts become void. The committee agreed to consider a motion by Rep. Blake Chard, R-Layton, during the next session. He suggested the Department of Corrections manage both inmates sentenced to jail as a condition of probation and contracted inmates. The motion also provides for judges to maintain authority to hand down and enforce sentences.