This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Without money for more jail beds and drug treatment, ongoing criminal-justice reforms will fall short, the Salt Lake County Jail will remain overburdened and open drug use in downtown Salt Lake City will continue with little to no punishment.
That's the assessment of law enforcement, mayors, even Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes.
Any solution likely will be costly and a focal point during the legislative session, which begins Monday.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, backed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, has asked the Legislature to spend the $30 million it set aside to expand Medicaid to bolster drug-treatment options and possibly help provide more jail beds.
Hughes, R-Draper, hasn't publicly endorsed that plan, but said Thursday he recognized the problem and the role the state should play.
"Let me put it this way: What Mayor McAdams has said is accurate," he said. "This is an issue for all Utahns."
It is likely that Hughes will talk about this issue in his opening-day speech Monday, though he declined to preview what he'll say, other than to add "when that happens, good things are going to float from that."
The Salt Lake County Jail has long dealt with overcrowding issues, but that has only been exacerbated since the Legislature passed its "Justice Reinvestment Initiative," which took effect in October 2015. It seeks to keep nonviolent criminals from being incarcerated and instead treat their illnesses and prevent recidivism. It reduced some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and, as a result, the state prison population declined, while many jails, including Salt Lake County's, remain at capacity.
The jail can hold up to 2,098 inmates. As of Thursday evening, it housed 2,076.
The new law also made it a priority to screen offenders for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment needs. While the use of screenings has increased, the number of treatment admissions dropped in the law's first year, according to the year-one report on the initiative released in the fall.
"It works; I'm a big supporter," McAdams said, referring to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. "But if we only implement it halfway and don't have treatment options available, it will fail."
Due to the jail crowding, the county launched a policy last March that aims to limit intake at the lockup by prioritizing felonies and misdemeanors involving sexual assault or child abuse over other misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes.
It defanged officers' ability to deter open drug use in the Rio Grande area, near the homeless shelter, an area now overrun by substance abuse, Brown said.
"If we arrest you, if you don't want to take care of this situation, we don't have any legal means to hold you accountable," the Salt Lake City police chief said. "You don't want to arrest the addict you can't arrest your way out of addiction.
"But unless they sit in jail for 12 hours and they say, 'I'm facing jail time or they're going to give me treatment,' " substance abusers may not seek out treatment options, Brown said.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder says the county needs an immediate option that will get those with mental-health issues and substance-abuse problems into treatment, and higher-level criminals into jail.
"Everybody recognizes we are in a crisis," Winder said. "This isn't exactly new news. I don't know anybody in this county that doesn't know that we have been full for a decade."
Winder said he could use up to 1,000 new beds.
McAdams' call for that $30 million in state money could be a solution, especially if it unlocks as much as $70 million in federal matching funds, though that would happen only if a Medicaid waiver is approved by President Donald Trump's new administration.
"What I've been saying publicly," McAdams said, "is we would like to see the state take that $30 million that they set aside as part of a match and now spend it in a way that when we do get the federal match, it will be eligible."
The Utah Association of Counties estimated it would cost around $16 million a year just for substance-abuse treatment, before follow-up costs for incarceration or ongoing treatment are added.
"Salt Lake County's request is as reasonable as any other request for focused treatment to address a real, immediate problem," said Adam Trupp, CEO of the Utah Association of Counties, which isn't part of the campaign. "The idea of $30 million is a perfectly reasonable number, considering the need."