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A Salt Lake City lawmaker thinks homeless shelters should get the same deterrents against drug dealers that Utah law affords schools, churches and parks.

Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe's HB365 would increase penalties by one degree for drug-related crimes committed within 100 feet of a government-funded homeless shelter — eliciting the unwelcome suggestion from a supporter that Briscoe's bill is at odds with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

The JRI, passed two years ago to lessen penalties for some drug crimes and thereby reduce incarceration rates, has robbed prosecutors of "their ability to charge any kind of a penalty to get any kind of a plea that makes sense," said Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan, before joining a unanimous House Political Subdivisions Committee vote to recommend HB365. The bill now goes to the full House.

"This isn't really aimed at you, but it's aimed at Salt Lake, it's aimed at anybody who's bought into this JRI thing lock, stock and barrel and [is] finding out now that, 'Gosh, you know, this doesn't really work that well,'" Webb said.

Briscoe disputed that characterization.

Despite the stepped-up penalties, Briscoe said, prosecutors would exercise their discretion to target only predatory dealers.

"I am not in favor of putting [someone] in jail because they possess or use," he said.

By way of example, Briscoe said he met the first person arrested during a series of innovative roundups that last year granted a choice between treatment or jail to offenders near the 210 S. Rio Grande emergency shelter.

This man was a "fisher," Briscoe said, who led buyers to dealers who made about $8 per "twist" of cocaine or heroin. The fisher's cut: two or three twists of his own.

Briscoe said that man is still in rehab and "doing well."

But he then invited Deputy District Attorney Will Carlson to describe another element of the area's famously rampant drug trade: foreign cartel members "who are there to exploit, plain and simple," Carlson said.

One Honduran cartel has a "transfer program of sorts," Carlson said. Dealers who were nabbed in Salt Lake City are deported and then "transferred" to Denver. From there, they might get sent back to Honduras and onto Seattle.

Given that more than 95 percent of cases are resolved before trial, most often with a plea to reduced charges, Carlson said distribution often becomes attempted distribution — "which Denver or Seattle may not see as serious."

"The goal here is not to just throw immigrants in prison," he said. "What we're trying to accomplish through this is the distinction between an addict ... and someone who has established an interstate history of distribution."

Nonetheless, Briscoe's bill would mean that Class A misdemeanor possession with intent to distribute could be charged as a third-degree felony if it occurs within 100 feet of a shelter.

ACLU legislative counsel Marina Lowe said the bill has the potential to saddle lower-level offenders with the many consequences that come with a felony conviction.

"It seems to me that the road to unwinding all of the good advances of the JRI is paved with good intentions," Lowe testified.

Briscoe's reliance on the discretion of prosecutors is "not much assurance for me," Lowe said later. If prosecutors have the evidence to make a stiffer charge stick, she said, they shouldn't accept a reduced plea.

Utah Sentencing Commission Director Jennifer Valencia said the bill "does undermine to some extent" the JRI's intent and worried that a 100-foot radius would simply push drug traffic further into residential areas where children are present.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said via text message that his department supports the bill.

Briscoe said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski had been provided a copy of his bill and hadn't responded. Biskupski could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.

The effort comes as Salt Lake City and County seek a second installment of state funding to build four homeless shelters and phase out the emergency shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St.

House Speaker Greg Hughes is among those who in recent months has described rampant drug dealing at that shelter, which is fronted on three sides by busy thoroughfares.

Brown and Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder have said a scarcity of county jail beds rules out the arrest of non-felony offenders — essentially allowing low-level dealers to operate with impunity.

Costs to reopen unused beds at the county's Oxbow Jail are prohibitive, county leaders have said. House Republican leadership has responded with an effort led by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, to find space at county jails elsewhere in the state.

Twitter: @matthew_piper