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Jail budget out of control

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The Salt Lake County Jail may need to install a revolving door to combat an ever-expanding budget.

In an attempt to keep up with increasing demands on the jail, county officials are considering releasing an existing inmate for every new one they let in.

Salt Lake County Council member Randy Horiuchi pushed that notion this week during a discussion of a continuing audit of jail services and the amount of revenue it requires.

"We need to start coming to grips with the fact that the budget is clearly out of control," he said.

Citing a budget that has increased from $9 million in 1991 to $47 million this year, Horiuchi said the county has to be prepared to embrace drastic measures to protect taxpayers' pocketbooks.

"We should decide on the money we are prepared to spend on the jail, the number of people we will let in and anything beyond that say, 'We're sorry.' We have to have nerve as a County Council. That's the kind of moxie we are going to have to develop."

Horiuchi said he isn't opposed to returning to a system similar to that mandated as a result of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over Salt Lake County Jail overcrowding.

As a result, the jail was ordered to operate under a federal consent decree that limited the offender population, even if it meant releasing people early to make way for new arrivals.

Horiuchi, a county commissioner during much of the time the decree was in effect, said a similar notion would help the county get its arms around a "gargantuan" budget.

"We were booting guys out at will. I think we need to get back to that point again," he said. "Was it bad public policy? To arrest people for nonpayment of fines and public intoxication is not in the public interest and not good policy. We need to find alternatives for those people. I have a problem with that. Only the most serious criminals should be in jail."

The discussion on jail budget woes followed a debate on jail billings earlier that day between leaders of 15 cities and members of the nine-member County Council.

While everyone agrees on the complexity of the problem and a need for resolution, no one has yet to offer a solution everyone can agree on.

Cities have been billed for years for "municipal" offenders in the county jail. Those bills have gone unpaid because city leaders say the costs are already taken care of by taxes levied through the county's general fund.

Some in the county, however, feel there is some merit in a 1985 decision by the Utah Supreme Court that allows a county to compel cities to pay for housing those implicated in minor offenses.

Jail commander Paul Cunningham said an easier way to deal with the problem is to impose booking restrictions, with the jail refusing to accept people charged with class B or class C misdemeanors.

County Council members also want to consider the possibility of establishing a new special service district specific to the jail to address inequities in the current system of paying for housing inmates.

Although a Utah State Senate bill passed in the last legislative session gave the county that option, Karl Hendrickson, the county's chief deputy over the civil division, said the law is fraught with problems.

County Council member Jim Bradley, joined unanimously by his colleagues Tuesday, asked Hendrickson to draft an alternate proposal for possible airing when legislators meet again.

E-MAIL: amyjoi@desnews.com