If county jails don't start getting more money for housing state prisoners and probationers, they may stop taking them potentially forcing the early release of prisoners to accommodate the growing prison population.
The concern over such a scenario is great enough that Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, is proposing legislation with a potential $13 million price tag to pay county jails the amount they've been promised for the past several years, but have never received.
County jails were told they would be paid 70 percent of the $77 daily cost the state pays to house an inmate in the prison, which is about $54. Right now, they are paid $45. County jails receive only $16 a day for those in jail as a condition of probation. Noel's bill, which has yet to be drafted, would increase the jail contracting rate by $1 and by $4 or $5 a day for probationers. He hopes eventually to increase the prison contract rate to the full 70 percent.
"We feel very strongly that the counties are due those monies," said Summit County Sheriff David Edmunds, the first vice president of the Utah Sheriff's Association. "If we don't get compensated for the expenditure, and if at some point they don't address it, it's going to be an issue of, 'Can we continue to take state inmates?' "
It's a major concern for Tom Patterson, executive director of the Department of Corrections.
"We don't want to lose that valuable relationship, and we're wondering, what is their breaking point?" Patterson said.
The consequences could jeopardize public safety, said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.
"If we don't support the idea of jail contracting, we'd have to increase bed space, and our only choice would be to release prisoners early," Hutchings said, adding that there's a good chance Noel's bill could get a significant amount of funding despite the tough budget year.
Noel, whose son is the Beaver County sheriff, says it's unfair to saddle counties with the burden of housing state prisoners, especially when the county facilities can house prisoners for less than the state can.
Gov. Gary Herbert put in an increase of nearly $5 million to raise the number of inmates who can go to county jails and to increase the daily rate.
"For real change to occur, the Legislature needs to increase funding, just as the governor has recommended in his budget," said spokeswoman Allyson Isom. Increasing the amount jails receive also could mean more therapeutic programming for prisoners.
"It costs us $28,000 a year to put a man in prison. If the person is a convicted murderer or rapist or psychopath, let's get him off the streets and it's money well spent," Noel said. "If it's for having a load of marijuana, at $28,000 a year, let's have a program in place so he's not coming back in two years."