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Salt Lake County can add jail space without expanding its jails if it commits to reforms that prevent people from going to the lockup and get those who aren't dangerous out more quickly, an analyst told a group that included county leaders Friday.
Police throughout the county could arrest and book more violent criminals without adding another bed if state and county officials changed practices that have lengthened stays in the Salt Lake County jail, David Bennett, a Utah-based criminal-justice consultant, told a group that included the district attorney, County Council members, sheriff's officials and others.
Those practices include courts imposing high cash-only bail on defendants who can't pay and potentially keeping nonviolent offenders behind bars when they don't pose a risk to the community, Bennett said.
"It's OK to hold somebody 'no bail' who we shouldn't be releasing, that's all right," Bennett said. "We play a game with money bond."
The county, he said, also should work toward opening what's called a community corrections center, in which low-risk offenders receive services and guidance to transition into the community. Bennett said counties elsewhere that have a similar model build and operate them at about half the cost of jails.
"We have less-culpable people taking up jail beds," Bennett said. "It's not right, and we can do better."
The presentation came at a time when law enforcement officials are calling for more jail space. Outgoing Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has asked the County Council to include in its next budget funding to operate more beds in the Oxbow jail and move to raise money to expand the Adult Detention Center.
Beds gained from those expansions would be filled quickly, Bennett said, as the Adult Detention Center was shortly after it opened in 2000 in South Salt Lake.
"The easy answer of just building more jail beds we've got to draw the line on," Bennett said. "We've got to have the appropriate number of jail beds. But right now, we don't know what that is."
The concepts presented weren't new to county officials. Many were included in the criminal justice master plan Bennett helped write for the county in 2011.
They were revisiting the issues at a time of ongoing focus on improving services for homeless residents, reducing recidivism among people who are convicted of crimes and keeping low-level offenders out of jail.
But Bennett and others said ongoing efforts by the county and the state have been undercut by a lack of funding by state and federal officials.
"The state gives us inklings of money," said Tim Whalen, director of the county's behavioral health services. "We got $1.4 million three years ago to do some treatment; $1.4 million is, it's gone very quickly."
Winder didn't attend the presentation. Two high-ranking officials from his office who attended Undersheriff Scott Carver and Chief Deputy Kevin Harris maintained the county needs more beds.
"Playing the what-if game and saying we don't need any of these beds because we're going to do this and it's going to reduce it, as a jail officer, I'm skeptical of it," Harris said.
Bennett acknowledged Winder has called for more beds while being stuck "between a rock and a hard spot," facing real pressure for space in the jails he oversees and an inability to put in place reforms on his own. "The jail is full," Bennett said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill also backed the sheriff and his employees, saying the county's explosive population growth will put real pressure on an already existing need for space that has become a sticking point among police in Salt Lake County and the sheriff.
But Gill said he strongly supported what he called a "pragmatic approach" to reform.
"Natural growth may give us [a need of] 1,000" more beds, Gill said. "We may only need to build 200."
"Smart policy actually impacts that natural growth," he said.