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In our opinion: State lawmakers need a long-term strategy for dealing with increasing prison costs

Workers repair a soft spot in the temporary haul road for the new prison in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
Workers repair a soft spot in the temporary haul road for the new prison in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah lawmakers are understandably concerned that estimated costs are rising for the new state prison west of the Salt Lake International Airport. But they should not skimp on those costs without considering the impact on local governments.

New construction estimates for the prison are approaching $700 million, up from the previously approved $650 million. Even at that higher amount, officials say the new prison would have to contain about 400 fewer beds than originally planned.

This, of course, does not mean law enforcement will stop arresting offenders once the jail reaches its lower capacity.

Utah’s correctional system allocates inmates in four ways. The majority, more than half, go to the main state prison in Draper, which is to be replaced by the new facility near the airport. A little more than one-fifth go to the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, which recently was expanded to house 1,788 inmates.

County jails make up most of the difference, totaling 1,840 beds, as of a 2015 study. The state contracts with 21 counties to provide this service. The fourth segment involves a minimum number of inmates from out of state who are housed in the Utah system.

A reduction in beds in the new prison likely would result in an increase in inmates being sent to county jails.

The state’s tradition of contracting with county jails can be a boon to local governments, providing local jobs in many rural areas. It also has helped the state avoid the expense of additional prison construction.

In 2013, a report for the Utah Association of Counties found that many counties have expanded their facilities to accommodate these inmates, incurring debt that makes them rely on a steady stream of state inmates.

According to the latest Census figures, Utah has the third-fastest population growth rate in the nation. This naturally equates to a steady growth in convicted criminals, as well.

The Association of Counties report estimated that, at 2012 levels, county jails would reach full capacity by this year.

If state lawmakers reduce the number of beds at the new facility to keep costs in line, at least some counties may want to expand their jails to accommodate the excess inmates. But some state officials have suggested the state may want to either expand the new prison eventually or find a site for a third prison.

The state needs to be careful to maintain a roughly steady percentage of inmates going toward county jails. As the Association of Counties report said, “Several counties have outstanding debt on their facilities and rely on the state’s inmate programs to make these payments. Any reduction in current levels of contracts for state inmates would result in a loss of budgeted revenue for the counties.”

We understand the concerns about the ever-increasing cost projections for the new prison. The decision to build west of the airport, and not to rebuild on-site in Draper, was controversial and fueled heated debates.

But in deciding whether to fully fund a replacement for the 4,000 beds in Draper or to save costs by funding only 3,600, state lawmakers need to set a long-term strategy that also considers the impact to counties. Once more inmates are sent to the counties, they can’t always be recalled painlessly.