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Lawmakers and criminal justice leaders have narrowed down where they'd like to see Utah's new prison to a list of 25 possible sites scattered throughout six counties.
Although these potential sites were not discussed in detail at Wednesday's meeting of the Prison Relocation Commission, a list of criteria was finalized, and the commission's priorities made clear, putting Utah well on track to have a final recommendation (or several) ready to present to the Legislature by January, consultants said.
Efforts have been underway for months to engage communities and meet with property owners face-to-face regarding the move of the Utah State Prison from its 700-acre location in Draper.
So far, the sites that are under consideration are spread largely along the Wasatch Front.
Consultants from MGT of America, Inc., said sites in Box Elder, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah and Weber counties have made the long list. The next step is to whittle that down.
The proposed time line, which consultant Brad Sassatelli said he is "confident" will be met, is to first narrow the commission's 25 options to a handful that align with Utah's stated priorities for the new prison. The commission is then expected to have most of December to consider the state's options before making a final recommendation during the 2015 legislative session.
"We're going to continue to be proactively seeking prospective sites and host communities," Sassatelli said. "We're not just waiting for the phone to ring or an email to come our way, we're out there beating the bushes, building up our contacts and our relationships to try to find sites that weren't in our inventory, so we can offer up different locations, and, most importantly, sites that may be easier to develop in better-suited locations."
On Wednesday, commission members voted to assign a point system to the six key criteria Sassatelli and his colleagues will look for in identifying a new place for Utah's prison.
Far and away, the commission voted, the most important criteria to consider when picking where Utah should move the prison is its proximity to society courts, hospitals, public transportation, major highways and a large population from which the prison could draw volunteers and workers.
Using a point system in which the total points assigned to each criteria would add up to 100, "proximity" was awarded 35 points.
Following that, the commission approved a three-way tie between land quality and environmental impact; infrastructure; and community support. Each was awarded 15 points.
Community services such as availability of backup emergency responders and the purposes of adjoining lands was given 10 points, as was development costs.
Several lawmakers voiced concerns over putting such a high premium on community support.
"We want a lot of population, we want a ton of infrastructure, we want the community to accept it, well, there are state statutes that allow schools to be built in neighborhoods because, surprisingly, neighborhoods don't even like schools," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "People actually resist even schools, and we're talking about a prison."
Rollin Cook, executive director for the Utah Department of Corrections, said prisons benefit communities in ways most people neither consider nor understand.
To get this message out, he said, the state should engage local community leaders and Utah residents in a dialogue.
"Prisons are not always everyone's favorite building to have located in their community, but a lot can be done by our agency and by those who are involved in educating the public," Cook said. "Corrections facilities are good partners. They do a lot of good work in communities."
Several commission members also raised concerns about the environmental impact of the prison move, which is expected to run a price tag of about $1 billion, and how a new facility might prioritize treatment and vocational programs to equip inmates to find work upon their release.
Other key considerations the group will take into account are prison population projections.
The number of inmates in Utah's prison system has been rising steadily over the past decade seeing a 22 percent growth rate despite a national decline driven largely by non-violent offenders and people violating the terms of parole or probation release agreements, according to data presented by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has been working with the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to craft policy recommendations.
The commission will meet again Oct. 20.