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County commissioners and sheriffs from across the state on Thursday urged the Prison Relocation Authority Committee to consider relying more on their jails as a way to alleviate the need for a new "mega" prison, claiming they can handle state inmates at a lower cost and with better outcomes.

In a presentation organized by the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah Sheriff's Association, county representatives suggested a smaller, new maximum-security prison could be built to house the most serious offenders while leaving a majority of remaining offenders in or near the counties they'll return to once they are released back into society. At present there is room to accommodate an additional 869 offenders at county jails that now contract to take state inmates, and several counties are willing and able to expand their facilities to take more inmates as the prison population grows in coming years, said Brent Gardner, Utah Association of Counties director.

County representatives argued a "decentralized" system would be a less expensive alternative than building an entire prison in a new location.

"We want to be part of the programming and get them back to our county as productive citizens," said Weber County Commissioner Matthew Bell, a former sheriff's lieutenant. "We are not sold on a big mega-prison where you keep them umpteen years and then they show up back on our doorsteps and are expected to be productive citizens."

Approximately 1,600 prisoners, about 23 percent of the state's inmates, are currently housed in county jails around the state. A study by Zions Bank's Public Finance division, commissioned by the Utah Association of Counties and completed in March, found that Utah will run out of empty beds at the two state prisons within three years if the inmate population's current growth rate of 134 new inmates per year. County jails will reach capacity in 2018.

"The bottom line of this study is unless something is done on a state or county level, we've got a critical mass and will be in full at the state and county levels and will have to start having to let people out," said Reed M. Richards, spokesman for the Utah Sheriff's Association.

The Utah Department of Corrections has a budget of $29.4 million to contract for space at 20 county jails in 2013, a sum that will need to be increased unless the state opts to add more prison beds — a costly alternative, according to the Zions study. It estimated the construction cost for adding prison beds at $131,198 per bed.

If the state chooses to take on future growth needs by expanding an existing prison facility, it will need an additional 611 beds by 2020 and 1,281 beds by 2025, the study found.

That's not likely, said Rep. Eric K. Hutchings, R-Kearns.

"We're not planning on that kind of new construction," Hutchings said. "It's not on the radar, it's not even being considered. Something really special would have to happen in the Legislature that I've never seen happen before to get on track to have 1,200 beds constructed [by then]. I don't think that is a viable option we should count on at this point."

But several counties are already in the beginning stages of evaluating jail expansion projects. Among them: Davis and Weber counties.

"One part of the evaluation is whether we'll be in greater partnership with the state than we are right now," said Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson.

Jails in several other counties are modular facilities designed to accommodate future expansion as needed; they could add up to 2,500 more beds "relatively quickly" at a cost estimated at between $50,000 to $60,000 per bed. But the counties are not seeking to take all state inmates, Bell said.

"No one is arguing that we don't need a state facility. We do," Richards added. "But a large part of the population can be dealt with in county jails."

Sanpete County Commissioners Claudia Jarrett and Jon Cox said the Gunnison prison has been a "good experience" for the city and county, offering good-paying jobs and volunteer opportunities.

"We've been good-faith partners in the past and hope to continue that relationship in the future," Cox said.

Some jails already offer specialized programs — San Juan, for example, operates a sex-offender treatment program for state inmates, while Kane County Jail has a substance abuse program specifically for sex offenders. Other county jails are prepared to enhance their programming to meet the Department of Corrections' needs, said Summit County Sheriff David Edmunds.

He said prisons are large, impersonal facilities that encourage criminality rather than reduce it.

"We are the antithesis of that," Edmunds said, adding that county jails "produce a superior product."

Edmunds also said county jails are able to house state inmates at $56 a day, about 30 percent less than it costs to house an inmate in prison. That rate is for inmates who do not need treatment services; the county jail rate for treatment beds is about $62 a day. Edmunds attributed the higher cost of prison housing to "inefficiencies" associated with a "large, complex bureaucracy."

"People being housed in the communities they are going to be released to makes a lot of sense," he said.

Prison costs are likely higher, however, because only lower security inmates are sent to county jails; maximum security inmates and those with severe medical, geriatric and mental illness issues are not sent to county jails. In addition, the state covers medical and transportation costs of inmates at county jails, said Mike Haddon, a Corrections deputy director.

"We do value the partnership with the counties, and they do have a role to play in this discussion,"Haddon said, but added that there are limitations to the role they play with inmates who have certain needs.

Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, asked the two groups to provide hard evidence to back their claims that county jails offer lower costs and reduced recidivism rates.

"I would want to know that the outcome long term is going to cost the state less money, not more money," he said.

The committee asked the counties to provide a formal, detailed proposal that would be shared with the committee and a yet-to-be hired consultant who will be tasked with developing a master plan and programming needs assessment for the state's correctional system. That document also will be used as the basis of a Request for Proposals to relocate the prison.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said no decision has yet been made on whether it makes economic and policy sense to move the prison, but the proposals will help the committee reach a decision.

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Appraiser to evaluate current prison site; committee to tour facilities

The Prison Relocation Authority Committee on Thursday approved hiring real estate appraiser Gary Free and his firm Free and Associates to determine the maximum value of the 690-acres the prison occupies at the Point of the Mountain in Draper.

The assessment will include property on the east side of I-15 where the Department of Corrections administration building and Fred House Training Academy are located. Assistant Attorney General Alan Bachman, the committee's legal advisor, said Free will be paid $62,500 for site appraisal, which is anticipated to be completed within 60 days.

Next up for the committee are tours of the Salt Lake County Metro Jail, the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison and the Sanpete County Jail before it meets again on August 29. The committee also plans to tour an out-of-state prison, but has not yet decided what facility to visit.

— Brooke Adams