Paying the freight
Critics of the Utah Legislature often find themselves in shooting-fish-in-a barrel mode, as our state lawmakers decry all the requirements imposed upon the state by federal government, then turn around and offload the responsibilities or costs of government services onto cities, counties and school districts.
Thus it should not pass without notice that at least one member of the Utah House is asking the state to live up to its responsibilities and at least take steps toward covering the costs of the state prisoners who are held in county jails.
It would be expensive. Even the sponsor of the yet-to-be-drafted bill, Kanab Republican Rep. Mike Noel, is looking at a phase-in of a plan that would make the counties, and their taxpayers, bear less of the burden of a state corrections system that isn't able to do its own job without help.
Noel would pony up an initial $13 million just to keep part of the promise that the state made to counties years ago, a promise that the state would pay counties 70 percent of what it costs Utah to house an inmate in the state's own prisons.
It might seem like a pretty sweet deal for the state to save 30 percent on the cost of one inmate by shifting the responsibility to a county lock-up. But the state isn't even keeping up with that promise. The cost of filling a state prison bed runs about $77 a day, but counties who take in state prisoners are getting between $16 and $45.
The issue goes beyond questions of fairness or even of worrying whether some counties, especially those with smaller tax bases, can really afford to keep providing jail space at that rate (and beyond the fact that Noel's son happens to be the sheriff of Beaver County). Utahns really do have to ponder what will happen when one or more counties decide that they can no longer bear to operate this way.
When they do, and tell the state they can't afford to take in any more prisoners, the state will have both a long-term and a short-term decision to make. The long-term choice is whether to build more prisons. The short-term concern is that the state will just have to release some of its prisoners sooner, perhaps much sooner, than they had planned.
A clear-eyed review of the situation might show that some, perhaps many, of the people now held in jail don't really need to be there. Both the inmates and the rest of us might be a lot better off if small-time, nonviolent criminals spent less time locked up, especially if they would benefit from substance-abuse rehab.
But that is a decision that should be made carefully, and by considering the merits of individual programs, not in a panic when the counties start locking out the state.