County officials and sheriffs in Utah have made a good case against the state closing the prison at Point of the Mountain and replacing it with a huge new lockup somewhere else. From all across the state, they joined together to argue that putting more prisoners into county jails makes more sense.
The Utah Association of Counties and the Utah Sheriff's Association told the Prison Relocation Authority Committee that counties can handle more state inmates in a "decentralized" system at a lower cost and with less recidivism. Legislators and members of the committee should pay attention.
Their suggestion makes a lot of sense: The state could build a new smaller maximum-security prison for the most serious offenders and put most of the less-dangerous offenders in or near the counties they'll return to once they are released back into society. Such "home-town prisons" could make it easier for inmates to re-enter the community after release.
Brent Gardner, director of the Utah Association of Counties, said there is room in county jails that now contract to take state inmates for an additional 869 offenders, and several counties are willing and able to expand their facilities to take more inmates as the prison population grows in coming years. Davis and Weber counties are already planning to expand their jails.
Jails with modular facilities designed to accommodate expansion could add up to 2,500 more beds relatively quickly at an estimated cost between $50,000 to $60,000 per bed.
That would be a cheaper alternative for taxpayers that also gives the counties a financial boost. A recent study by Zions Bank's Public Finance division, commissioned by the Utah Association of Counties, estimated the construction cost for adding state prison beds at $131,198 per bed, and, if the state chooses to meet future growth needs by expanding an existing prison facility, the study says it will need an additional 611 beds by 2020 and 1,281 beds by 2025.
Approximately 1,600 prisoners, about 23 percent of the state's inmates, are currently housed in county jails around the state. The study found that Utah will run out of empty beds at the two state prisons within three years using the inmate population's current growth rate of 134 new inmates per year. County jails will reach capacity in 2018.
Programs to reduce the number of prison inmates including drug courts and the use of home confinement and tracking devices should help cut the need for more prison space. Using county facilities instead of building a central "mega-prison" should also be part of a plan for the future of Beehive State corrections.