S.L. County may build a treatment-focused corrections center
$40M center • It would give inmates counseling, training.
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It's not a jail. It's not quite a halfway house, either.

The latest innovation in Salt Lake County's criminal-justice system may combine elements of both in a "community corrections center" designed to help convicted wrongdoers who wrestle with drug addictions or mental health problems break free from their criminal past.

It would offer the county a cellblock-free brand of incarceration that would focus on drug treatment, mental health counseling, job training and life skills in a less-restrictive environment, allowing inmates to transition into the community while serving their sentences.

"Do we simply allow them back into the community and wait for them to fail, sometimes in a spectacular way, or do we try to guide their re-entry?" asked David Bennett, the county's criminal-justice consultant. "This is changing the paradigm of punishment."

It's only an idea. But it's an idea county officials are considering so seriously that Criminal Justices Services Director Gary Dalton already has identified several properties that could accommodate a 200- to 500-bed corrections center, along with a new office building for his division.

Not only that, but Mayor Peter Corroon also has scheduled a trip to Oregon in July to tour a facility built on the same model.

The corrections center would fill a gap between the county's existing jails — the maximum-security Adult Detention Center and medium-security Oxbow, both in South Salt Lake — and community treatment programs such as Project Reality and Odyssey House that battle the addictions that often lead to incarceration.

"We are missing that middle piece," District Attorney Sim Gill said, and that piece is critical in curing people's criminality.

"What they need is to be meaningfully engaged in treatment," he said. "For those who are willing to engage, let's get them out of [the jail] and support them therapeutically."

Consequently, the facility would help relieve pressure on the county's jails and reduce recidivism.

But the complex would come at a cost. The county is considering plans for a criminal-justice campus that would run close to $40 million. Most of that would pay for a Criminal Justice Services Division office building, which likely would run about $25 million. About $4.5 million would pay for the corrections center, based on estimates for a 250-bed facility. The rest would pay for a receiving center to screen inmates and for the property itself.

That's the part that worries Sheriff Jim Winder, though he supports the concept. The county's top cop, who championed Oxbow's opening as a therapeutic jail, worries that the price tag might be too steep. Can the county's ledger really support its existing jails plus a community corrections center?

"In these times of budget constraints, how do you fund both?" Winder asked. "I've got to wonder, where are we going to get the money?"

The sheriff successfully pushed to reopen Oxbow in 2009 as a treatment-centered lockup that would expand the jail's substance-abuse program while providing wrongdoers with more intensive vocational and life-skills training. Winder said Oxbow would better prepare inmates for life on the outside.

And yet, the community corrections center would be fundamentally different than Oxbow. For starters, it wouldn't be a jail. It would more closely resemble a treatment center with dorm-style living, rather than a cellblock. Security would be lighter. And freedoms would be granted for people to get jobs or treatment on the outside.

Proponents say it would save the county money long term by taking inmates out of jail to serve their sentences in a less-costly facility. They also say lower recidivism would result in fewer "frequent fliers" in the judicial system.

Corroon is interested in the concept. But he said the county must ensure that other elements are in place — such as adequate treatment beds in the community to support people once they leave jail — before it goes forward.

"We have a lot of pieces to the puzzle," Corroon said. "We are trying to fit them all together to make a strong criminal justice system that reduces crime and prevents people coming back into the jail."

In the meantime, the county continues to look for land that might serve as a criminal justice campus. Dalton hopes to find a property by year's end.

jstettler@sltrib.com

Twitter: Stettler_Trib —

By the numbers Corrections center

$40M Estimated cost of a new criminal-justice campus, including an office building for the county's Criminal Justice Services Division, a community corrections center and an inmate-screening receiving center.

$4.5M Estimated price for a 250-bed community corrections center.

200-500 Number of beds that could be included in the proposed center.

3 Properties the county is examining that would have room for the campus.