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Several lawmakers had one question after hearing a report on what the state pays to house prisoners at county jails: Why so little?

The answer: Well, because you said so.

"The Legislature always appropriates less than statute allows," said Brent Gardner, director of the Utah Association of Counties during a Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee meeting Wednesday at the Capitol.

A state statute requires the Utah Department of Corrections to calculate its cost to house inmate every year. The rate is calculated by averaging daily housing costs per inmate at the state's two prisons for the previous three fiscal years.

For fiscal 2014, that rate is $77.84.

The law also says counties are to receive a percentage of that rate — 79 percent if they provide treatment services and 73 percent if they don't. That translates to $61.49 and $56.82 a day per inmate, respectively.

But the statute also allows the Legislature to provide less than the amount called for under the formula, which is consistently how the math works out.

This year the jail contracting budget is $30 million, about $4 million to $7 million less than needed to pay counties at the statutory rates.

The result is that this fiscal year county jails will be paid $50.70 or $46.85 a day per inmate, depending on what services they provide. The amount has not changed in at least three years, in large part because of the Great Recession.

Counties are paid even less for offenders sentenced to jail time by judges: $38.92, which is 50 percent of the daily prison housing cost.

"The way we look at it is that the prisoners the Department of Corrections has are the ones we want," Gardner told the committee. "The ones under probation are the ones we don't want. But judges make us take them."

After hearing that explanation, some lawmakers had another question: Are counties able to make ends meet at those rates?

"Some are and some aren't," Gardner said.

The counties that don't think the rate is adequate to cover costs have opted not to contract with the state.

Currently, 20 of Utah's 29 counties have contracted to take state inmates. How many state inmates each of those counties takes ranges from 363 at the Beaver County Jail to just two inmates at the Juab County Jail.

In all, counties are housing some 1,633 offenders, which is about 23 percent of the prison's total inmate count. Gardner said the counties currently have about 900 empty beds that could be used to house state inmates.

The Legislature has to pass a concurrent resolution authorizing counties to take state inmates. In the last session, two resolutions were proposed but failed to get an airing.

One would have allowed Iron County to increase its state inmate county from 10 to 35; the other would have authorized placement of 100 state inmates at the newly expanded Tooele County Jail.

Lawmakers did approve a resolution urging greater use of county jails as a way to partly address the state's need for a new, modern Utah State Prison.

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