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The jail crisis: How did we get here?

Police, politicians and flawed policies complicate search for solution. Is tax increase the answer?

SOUTH SALT LAKE — On Jan. 23, 2000, police officers from across the valley began booking people into the brand new Adult Detention Center — aka, the new Salt Lake County Jail.

Just 21 days later, the $135 million mega-complex, considered at the time one of the 10 largest in the nation, was full.

In the 17 years since that time, the jail has essentially remained at capacity levels.

Today, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder says his jail is more than 500 beds "behind the curve" — facing a rapidly increasing population, as well as a surge of reduced penalties for the drug-addicted. He's received flack from agencies such as the Salt Lake City Police Department for new booking policies that don't allow many misdemeanor offenders to be booked into jail when it is running near capacity — which seems to be all the time.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder holds a press conference at the sheriff's office in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 30, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Meanwhile — even as millions in state and county dollars are being used to implement a temporary plan to start shipping inmates across the state by contracting with outlying counties for their jail space — more than 350 beds sit unfunded and empty at the mothballed Oxbow Jail, which would require $9 million to reopen.

How did we get here?

The answer to that question, county leaders say, is complicated and can't be attributed to one problem or one person.

Jail overcrowding traces back to the closure of Oxbow and opening of the new Salt Lake County Jail, followed by county and state leaders seeking ways to purposely not build new beds to simply warehouse inmates, but to also reform the system to better serve the drug-addicted and mentally ill and reduce recidivism.

But those reforms — lacking treatment dollars or Medicaid expansion — have put Salt Lake County in an impossible position, county leaders say.

The solution? County leaders say it's complicated — and expensive. Jail beds, without question, is a major piece of the puzzle. But Winder and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill say the beds must also be accompanied by more money for addiction and mental health treatment.

That's why, if you ask Winder, a tax increase next year is inevitable.

“If come January we as a government have done nothing to resolve it ourselves, that’s going to be a problem,” the sheriff said. “The real question is if the citizens recognize the same pressures I do.”

But Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and members of the County Council aren't convinced that's true — or at least not yet.

“Raising taxes should always be the last resort,” McAdams said, reluctant to implement a "permanent solution" on the back of taxpayers when county leaders don't even have a plan in front of them that takes into account current and future jail needs.

“I don’t think it’s wise fiscal management to start the conversation with how much revenue is on the table and then build the plan. I think that needs to be reversed.”

The crisis

One of Winder's loudest critics has been Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown. Out of all the cities in the county, Salt Lake City has been battling what appears to have been causing the most public outrage — increasing crime concerns in its Rio Grande neighborhood, where the Road Home shelter has acted as a magnet for drug dealers preying on the drug-addicted and mentally ill.

Brown has said it’s been “extremely difficult” to keep that downtown area under control while his officers aren’t able to book offenders under Winder's jail booking restrictions.

“It’s been a morale killer” for officers, Brown said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, left to right, answer questions at a press conference at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016.| Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The chief says that while the most serious crimes such as murder, aggravated assault, robbery and burglary are down, the so-called "quality of life" offenses — forgery, shoplifting, trespassing, simple assault, drunkenness — have increased in Salt Lake City. And most people who commit those type of crimes can't be booked into jail because of overcrowding.

That not only frustrates police officers, Brown said, but the inability to book certain people into jail has created an atmosphere of indifference among criminals — particularly in the downtown area.

And the word is out. The jail policy has attracted criminals from outside of Salt Lake City to travel downtown to conduct their illegal activity, knowing they won't be arrested, the chief says.

“I was talking with some of my bike officers today, and they were telling me, ‘Chief, there are people coming from surrounding counties to Salt Lake County just because they know they won’t be arrested,'” Brown said.

"We really want to hold those dealers accountable for coming down here and taking advantage of a very vulnerable population," Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said recently, adding that officers "want to hold people accountable," but can only do so when they're given the resources.

Amid those frustrations, Winder says his jail has been “vilified” for not taking criminals off the streets. But the problem, he says, is bigger than him or his staff or his jail. He says that his budget, since it's the largest in the county, has been a popular “piggy bank” for cuts or reallocations over the years. And despite his badgering of county political leaders over the years, new jail beds have been a scarcity.

Gill — whose caseload as district attorney has increased — also believes the jail policy isn't the problem.

"To say that somehow in the last six months that we’ve had this surge or explosion of crime because of a booking restriction decision, is absolutely a misleading argument that does not appreciate the full complexity of the situation,” he said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill speaks during a meeting with the press at Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 1, 2017. | Alex Goodlett, Deseret news

Instead, Gill says a perfect storm of deficits from different domains — most notably the passing of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative followed by the Utah Legislature's inability to approve Medicaid expansion — has resulted in the crisis situation the county is currently facing. Furthermore, the efforts of the Utah Department of Corrections to reduce the number of inmates in the beds at the Utah State Prison means that more low-level offenders have been given the option of serving their time in a county jail, thus taking up more jail beds and pushing out some of the people who are now causing problems for Salt Lake City, he said.

So what do county leaders do from here?

The questions

A temporary, partial solution was announced this month: Salt Lake County will contract with other Utah counties to start shipping inmates when beds are available elsewhere. The County Council recently approved fronting $705,000 to the sheriff's office to start opening beds in other counties until $2.8 million in state funds, matched by the county, kicks in starting in July.

McAdams says he would even like to explore whether that might be a permanent solution.

But best case scenario, the contracting will only open up about 300 beds for the next two years, at most. And Brown says his police department alone would be able to fill 300 beds in a week.

Additionally, those inmates who will be transferred, the Deseret News has learned, will likely not be housed in counties close to Salt Lake County.

Furthermore, some have questioned whether every jail bed in Salt Lake County is truly occupied by a body, or if there is actually room to admit more inmates.

And what about the Oxbow Jail just down the street from the Salt Lake County Jail that has remained mostly dormant for a decade? That facility was built in 1991 and was designed to house exactly the type of criminals the Salt Lake County Jail currently isn't accepting.

The history

For 33 years, the county jail was located in downtown Salt Lake City where the current Salt Lake County Main Library stands. It was dubbed the "jail on stilts" because of its unique design that made the high-rise building appear that it was being supported by stick-like poles.

The original jail held 311 inmates when it first opened. It was expanded to hold 870 by the time it closed in 2000.

In 1995, Salt Lake County residents approved a 20-year bond to build the current Salt Lake County Jail. The bond resulted in the county spending $9.4 million annually to pay off that debt. That bond was paid off in 2015.

The orignal master plan for the complex called for four pods to be built immediately, with land set aside for four more pods to be built, anticipating future growth. If all eight pods are built, the jail would have an anticipated capacity of about 4,000 beds.

The new Salt Lake County Jail under construction. | Deseret News Archives

When the new Salt Lake County Jail opened, it led to the closure of the Oxbow Jail a couple of blocks away. Faced with an overcrowding crisis, Oxbow partially reopened in 2009. But it remains largely vacant today. In order to reopen it, county leaders say it would require a $9 million investment for basic upkeep of the building and to fix whatever wear and tear that time has caused.

For years, Winder says he and his staff have “strongly advocated for the need to ramp up jail beds” alongside any new recidivism programing.

When the jail bond expired in 2015, county leaders saw an opportunity to try to reduce recidivism by redesigning the system. McAdams and the council agreed to extend the bond levy to continue collecting its $9.4 million annual revenue to deal with high recidivism rates while also saving for additional jail beds and preparing for an estimated $30 million bond for what they called a "community correction center" — a facility envisioned to be equipped with treatment beds, maybe some jail beds, and resources to quickly connect inmates to mental health and addiction services.

County leaders estimated at the time that they would be able to “get by” with existing jail capacity until at least 2020, McAdams said.

But things haven’t exactly gone as planned.

The 'perfect storm'

In 2015, the Utah Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The goal was to slow the swelling of Utah's ever-growing prison population by declassifying some felony drug crimes as misdemeanors. A simple possession of meth or heroin charge became a class A misdemeanor instead of a third-degree felony. The intent was to help those with first or second drug convictions get help through treatment and supervision.

But what happened next was that a good chunk of the money expected to help pay for drug and mental health treatment never came to fruition because state lawmakers did not pass Medicaid expansion. That resulted in many drug offenders being sent back to the street instead of getting treatment or going to prison.

When the Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed, Gill said he knew the result would be an influx of criminal cases at the county level.

"The current upsurge in crime, or whatever they’re talking about, is nothing new. This was something I predicted a long time ago," he said. "I said for 18 to 36 months, you are going to see this surge that’s going to happen. And the surge that is going to happen is going to be previous felonious conduct for drug-related issues."

Gill says many of those people who have been spared prison because of the initiative are now being rearrested for new drug crimes. And on their third arrests, the crimes are upgraded to more serious felony violations.

"Those people who got declassified didn’t get treatment, (they) now have two priors (convictions), and are now being prosecuted with a felony again. So now my felony numbers are starting to go back up,” Gill explained.

A bus carrying prisoners is driven to the Oxbow Jail in South Salt Lake on Saturday, July 18, 2009. Currently, the partially empty jail houses 184 inmates. It has room for 552. | Deseret News Archives

In the past seven years, case filings at the district attorney's office have risen from about 12,000 a year to more than 17,000, including approximately 15,000 felony cases.

"We haven't really solved anything here," Gill said. "We’ve pushed it into the community."

McAdams agrees that the storm that blew everything off course was the flawed implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Because the initiative was passed without Medicaid expansion or enough investment in treatment, the mayor says the initiative simply “flooded” the county corrections system by diverting 7,000 people each year from the state prison.

“The promise was that we were going to incarcerate less and treat more,” McAdams said. “The promise was some form of Medicaid expansion."

That failed promise resulted in more than a 200 percent workload and capacity increase on the Salt Lake County Jail, he said, forcing the sheriff to place booking restrictions that have frustrated Salt Lake City and other police departments in the county.

The jail policy

In no time at all, administrators found themselves in a "no room at the inn" situation. They also faced the threat of violating federal law by running a facility at over capacity.

Because of that, the jail began the practice of releasing inmates early. Some low-level offenders were being booked into jail and released just three hours later.

Rather than booking inmates and letting them out the back door, Winder implemented a new policy in March of 2016 that restricted who is allowed in the door in the first place. Instead of tying up resources at the jail booking area and taking officers off the streets for an extended period of time, Winder announced that when the jail population is high — which is nearly all of the time — most misdemeanor offenders won't be booked into jail.

The Salt Lake County Jail in South Salt Lake is pictured on Monday, May 1, 2017. | Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

Winder disagrees with police agencies that believe the older policy is better. "A three-hour walk through the jail reduced crime in your city? I'm not buying it," he said.

"Jail and jail policies do not have macro effects on crime rates," he said. "One swimming pool don’t change the weather. Whether it’s full or partially empty, you can’t tell me the storm clouds are coming because of that."

Brown, however, believes a trip to jail, even if it's just for an hour, does have a deterring effect.

But he also agrees with both Winder and Gill that not only are more jail beds needed, but a holistic approach that also includes treatment is the only way to solve the problem. The police department has been doing roundups and arrests in the area around Pioneer Park for decades, he said, and nothing has changed.

The beds

When the sheriff says the jail is full, that doesn't mean there will be one body in every available bed at night. Unlike a prison, where someone might be using the same bed for 20 years, county officials say a jail is fluid with inmates constantly cycling in and out.

"If you build 100 beds, the goal isn’t for all 100 beds to be filled because if you did, you would only be able to serve 100 people,” Gill said.

The Salt Lake County Jail currently runs on an occupational capacity of 2,050 beds. A little more than 220 of those are allocated for serious medical needs. There are currently 184 beds being funded at the Oxbow Jail.

Number of occupied, specially reserved or unfunded beds in S.L. County, Oxbox jails | Aaron Thorup, Salt Lake County Jail

"The only empty beds we have are required specialty beds. It would be foolish to leave an acutely sick person in general population," Winder said. "God help us (if) we take an acutely mentally ill individual that has to be up in acute medical and we go, ‘There’s no bed. Keep him down here in general population,’ and he assaults somebody or he is assaulted. … You got to have the open beds."

The jail has to be prepared for whatever may come. That means keeping a certain number of beds set aside for medical needs and for problem inmates who need to be separated from the general population, he said.

The booking restrictions go into effect when the jail is 80 percent filled — approximately 1,600 beds. Winder also noted that the jail is always running at over 80 percent capacity.

At one point in March, he said 2,034 beds were occupied, meaning he was just 16 people away from truly being able to hold no one else.

"It's not realistic to simply say, 'Find more room, manage it better,” the sheriff said. "There are truths, and the truth is there are only so many beds."

And Winder notes he has no control over who is brought to his jail. If a local police department decides to conduct a sweep or a sting operation, or if a judge decides to send a bunch of people to jail on a single day for contempt of court, Winder says he has to make room for them.

"Unlike almost any other agency on planet Earth, I control nothing as it relates to what everybody else does,” the sheriff said.

"We don’t get to control the volume of those 911 calls. We don’t get to control when the call for service goes out and the demand for our action is necessary. I certainly don’t get to tell a chief, ‘Hey, don’t answer that 911 call because that’s going to result in a case that I’m going to have to screen and file,'” Gill said.

The jail is also not just a giant warehouse, Winder said. "The average individual perceives the jail as nothing more than a big box where people sit around.”

The cost per inmate

It costs $106 to house each inmate in the Salt Lake County Jail each day. That cost includes food and medical, two of the single biggest expenses. According to the jail's budget, approximately $6.9 milllion is budgeted for inmate medical treatment and more than $2.6 million for food. Other expenses include the light and power bill at approximately $1.4 million.

Prisoners are escorted into the Oxbow Jail in South Salt Lake on Saturday, July 18, 2009. Currently, the partially empty jail houses 184 inmates. It has room for 552. | Deseret News Archives

The jail could house inmates for less, but Winder says it would essentially be the same as warehousing them at that point, and that is something he says he refuses to do.

"We could do away with mental health and a variety of other issues and just house people in that box. Our county to this point and time — me included — doesn’t feel that is the right way to go,” he said. "I won’t be sheriff throwing meat to people in a cave. Hire somebody else."

Yet the county isn't offering to pay other jails that much money for the inmates it has no room for.

This year, with jail space needs reaching “crisis” levels, Winder successfully lobbied the state for $2.8 million in county funds to contract with other county jails for up to 300 new jails beds at a rate of $52 per inmate per day — the same rate the state pays for jails to house state prison inmates. The County Council recently approved $700,000 to kick off that program this month rather than wait until July 1 for the state funding to hit the county’s pockets.

But finding open jail space in other counties may not as be as easy as it sounds. And it may also create the difficult situation of shipping some inmates to jails hours away from Salt Lake County, which would bring up yet another expense issue.

The Deseret News randomly called several areas jails to find out if there was any bed space available for overflow Salt Lake County Jail inmates.

The Oxbow Jail, pictured on Nov. 11, 2008, has sat mostly mothballed ever since the 2,000-plus, more secure Salt Lake County Jail opened in 2000. But now county officials are looking at reopening the facility to deal with overcrowding, but it comes with a $9 million price tag. Currently, the partially empty jail houses 184 inmates. It has room for 552. | Deseret News Archives

Both Davis and Summit counties said last week there was no room. Davis County Jail officials in Farmington said their facility is near capacity in part because it is housing some former Daggett County Jail inmates. About 80 inmates were relocated after a scandal there led to the closure of the jail amid allegations of prisoner abuse. The investigation led to criminal charges recently being filed against the former sheriff and four deputies.

Juab County Jail officials in Nephi said their facilities are so small they are near capacity all the time.

The Utah County Jail in Spanish Fork said it could take about 130 inmates, but only at a rate of $72.25 per day.

Officials at jails in Weber and Carbon counties said they have a handful of open beds; a Tooele County Jail official said his jail has a few more.

Winder said during a County Council meeting this week that he's so far been able to wrangle about 70 beds to be used with the county's $700,000, and he's still working with other counties to obtain more. The state's $2.8 million match is expected to fund up to 300 beds, but Winder said he's still "ramping up" the program, so it will take time to figure out exactly how many beds the funding will actually provide.

The Oxbow Jail

Yet as the county gears up to start shipping inmates to surrounding counties, 368 beds sit empty at the Oxbow Jail (now currently housing 184 inmates of its 552 capacity).


The facility has sat mostly mothballed ever since the 2,000-plus, more secure Salt Lake County Jail opened in 2000. Now, Winder estimates it will cost about $9 million to fully reopen, thanks to needed repairs to its kitchen, heating and ventilation, and camera system. Another $3 million to $4 million would be needed in ongoing costs to staff and operate it.

The $9 million, on top of the ongoing costs, has gone unfunded after years of “anemic” budget growth, according to Winder.

"If I had my way, we would open Oxbow this fiscal year," Winder said. “We all know there’s no money right now. There simply isn’t.”

That’s why he believes there’s “no question” that county leaders will need to raise taxes in 2018 to generate new, ongoing revenue for jail beds. The 300-bed, state funded county contracting plan is only a temporary solution.

A tax increase, however, is not something neither McAdams nor members of the County Council are ready to pull the trigger on.

Though the mayor and council members recognize the need for new jail beds is inevitable, they say discussions on how to fill that need are still ongoing. Oxbow, they say, is under serious consideration.

“Oxbow seems like an obvious answer, but it’s an expensive answer,” said Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw. “We don’t have the money immediately available. And, you know, no one loves a tax increase."

“The bottom line is who’s going to pay for it?” said Council Chairman Steve DeBry.

The tax talk

Though the answer seems crystal clear to the sheriff, McAdams is reluctant to jump to a tax increase as the solution when county leaders don’t even have a plan in front of them that takes into account current and future jail beds needs.

Opening Oxbow, however, is a recommendation the mayor said he expects to see from Winder later this year. When weighed with building a brand new facility, it’s without a doubt the cheaper option, McAdams said.

“That’s a facility that, with some minimal updating, we can get additional beds at one of the lowest-cost ways,” the mayor said. But he’s waiting for the plan from the sheriff for details.

McAdams said he’s also still “very interested” in building a community corrections center to provide beds, but also “some potential to change the growth curb” by acting as the one-stop shop for treatment and other services. That, however, would require an estimated $30 million bond.

“I am anxious to see a plan,” McAdams said. “We are in a situation where there is a crisis.”

Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton recently commended Winder for working on a temporary solution with the state, but urged progress on other options, including the potential reopening of Oxbow. She noted the state contracting proposal is the first formal request to the council to open more jail beds in the county.

That sparked some frustration for Winder.

“I would disagree with you, ma’am,” the sheriff told Newton, saying over the last decade he’s constantly indicated to the council the need for additional beds and has “strongly advocated for the need to ramp up” jail space alongside any new recidivism programing.

Newton didn’t deny that, but stood by her statement that it was the first formal budget request to take action.

She said the details need to be ironed out, but there’s no question Salt Lake County will need to expand its jail space in the near future — alongside any mental health or drug treatment programs. She said hopefully by budget season in October, the council will have a plan in front of them.

“There are big questions,” she said. “Do we build new pods at the Adult Detention Center? Do we open pods at Oxbow, even though it’s an older facility? Do we do a community corrections center? We’re still having those discussions and still trying to figure out what the future looks like for Salt Lake County.”

Officer Braxton Berrett watches over Salt Lake County jail inmates as they work in the inmate garden outside the jail in South Salt Lake on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

She also agreed, however, that a tax increase should be the last resort. But she didn’t rule it out.

“Public safety should be our No. 1 priority as a county, but before we consider a tax increase we need to make sure we’ve slimmed down our budget in other areas and maybe look for ways we can be more fiscally conservative in areas that aren’t,” she said. “If there are still needs for public safety, I think that’s the time we’d have to look at a potential increase.”

DeBry pondered the possibility of the council “mandating” a certain amount from the $9.4 million jail levy extension to open Oxbow, but, again, he said there’s still not any specific proposal for the council to consider.

He said come midyear, there better be a detailed proposal, since the council won’t allocate “one penny” until there is a well-rounded plan.

“Until we get those specific answers, there won’t in my opinion be any money voted on or allocated,” he said. “But once we have that specific plan laid out, that will be the context for a really pointed discussion on the proposal, what kind of money is needed, and then we can really get some things done.”

Then, DeBry said, “That’s when the rubber meets the road.”

“We’re going to have to have some very pointed discussions of the best use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We might have to rob Peter to pay Paul. There’s not enough money to go around everywhere, so we’re going to have to make some hard decisions.”

In the meantime, McAdams said, the issues related to Justice Reinvestment Initiative should be revisited by the state before resorting to a tax increase.

If not — and the county continues to be overwhelmed by people with reduced penalties who aren’t getting diverted to treatment because of the lack of treatment dollars — McAdams said the initiative may need to be rolled back.

“If justice reinvestment amounts to nothing more than county-level incarceration instead of state-level incarceration, then is that something we want to be a part of? Maybe we just need to undo justice reinvestment and call it a failure,” he said, but added conversations with state officials are ongoing to find solutions.

McAdams noted that this year, the state appropriated $6 million for treatment, but there’s still a long way to go to pull the county out of the initiative's flood of inmates.

“I’m appreciative to the state for partially stepping up to shoulder some of those costs, but it still leaves the county saddled with a really expensive burden,” he said.

'The long game'

But even if more money is put into treatment and supervision, Gill says money for new jail beds also cannot be ignored. A model has to be enacted that addresses all of those needs. You can't have one without the other, he said. There has to be both.

"The thinking error here is seeing it as an either-or proposition. If I invest in treatment, I don’t have to build (a jail),” he said. "You can’t have an either-or. You’re still being smart. But you still have to invest into the model as part of your natural growth."

Nalini Nadkarni, professor of biology and director of science and math education at the University of Utah, lectures on trees at the Salt Lake County Jail in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 24, 2014. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Gill said Salt Lake County is projected to have 1 million more residents over the next two decades. He believes that's why county leaders need to "play the long game" rather than looking for short-term solutions.

Gill compares the need for more money to a young couple who gets married. They won't be able to sustain their same way of life on the same income as their family grows. The amount of money it takes to feed a baby is not the same as feeding a teen.

"Well, there’s a fiscal note that’s attached to that that we should have been preparing for as a part of our natural growth,” he said. "We need to make a policy commitment to either open up Oxbow or not. We have to make a policy commitment to open up an additional pod at the (jail). And we have to make a policy committment to say, ‘What are the dollars necessary to mitigate the unchecked growth and the checked growth?'

"But it’s going to require investment in treatment and supervision. And at the same time, investment into the hard brick and mortar of those natural growth beds,” he said. "You want to be able to have room at the inn. But not everybody that you could possibly arrest — historically, or even functionally — can just be kept at the jail."

The district attorney says county officials and the public shouldn't be shocked at the sticker price to solve these neglected issues. When you buy something in an emergency, it always costs you more than if you had planned for it.

"You cannot have the natural growth or even mitigated growth and not feel like that investment is necessary. You can only kick this issue down the block for so long before it becomes a crisis," he said.

"If you give me 3,000 jail beds, I can fill 3,000 jail beds. Heck, if you give me 5,000 jail beds, I can fill all 5,000 of those jail beds. And we’ll be having the same conversation after filling that up because we’re not addressing the underlying issue,” Gill continued.

"We will never have (enough beds) because we don’t have that much money to build that big of a jail."