Both candidates for Salt Lake County sheriff agree on what needs to be done to address the ongoing jail bed shortage, which is one of the biggest challenges facing the winner of November’s election — but they disagree about where responsibility lies for cities that have left the county force to start their own police departments.
Democrat Rosie Rivera, who became the state’s first female sheriff in August 2017, is seeking a full term in office. She’s focused on improving services for homeless residents, reducing recidivism among people who are convicted of crimes and keeping low-level offenders out of jail. Her Republican challenger is one of her employees, Lt. Justin Hoyal, who says the department needs new leadership to face the future.
Voters will decide in November, and there’s no question that addressing the need for more jail cells will be a major focus in the years to come.
“We’ve been at capacity for over five years, but nobody wanted to admit it,” Rivera said. “You have to do more than just say, ‘We have this problem.’ You know, we have to figure out the population that’s in there, how do we help them?”
There have been moves toward addressing the problem, such as the opening of Oxbow jail in July, which could hold up to 184 inmates.
But Utah’s population is projected to grow by an additional 1.5 million people by 2050, and that will likely mean more crime, Hoyal said.
“As the county continues to grow, we’re working on the infrastructure; you know, we’re adding our streets, we’re adding new sewer lines,” he said, but “we haven’t added new jail beds.”
An expected shortage of beds in the new prison — which will have 3,600 beds despite a projected need for 4,000 by 2022 — may also exacerbate the issue, Rivera said.
But adding more beds won’t come cheap. Rivera estimated it could cost up to $200 million to expand the county jail, and that needs to happen sooner rather than later because “the cost for building is increasing.”
A ‘revolving door’
Solutions to the jail bed shortage also need to extend to increased mental health resources and alternatives to incarceration, both candidates say.
“We have to help those people that can’t help themselves,” Hoyal said. “Those that are struggling with mental health issues. Those that are struggling with addiction. Those individuals are people that we constantly see going through that revolving door at the jail. They’re in, they’re out, they’re in, they’re out.”
About 85 percent of the people booked into jail from Operation Rio Grande — an all-out attack on homelessness, open drug use and crime downtown, with a price tag around $67 million — should be receiving mental health treatment instead, Rivera said.
As sheriff, Rivera says she has doubled the mental health unit, enabling therapists to go on calls with officers to try to get resources for offenders rather than throwing them in jail.
“Because that’s been a pattern for years,” she said. “You know, you call police because somebody’s acting out, OK, we’ll just take them to jail. That’s what we do. If they’re on drugs, you just take them to jail. So that’s why I believe the jail is full is there are people who are incarcerated, yes, they broke the law, but there could be alternatives to helping them and maybe the jail wouldn’t be so full.”
Rivera also said she and the county are looking at options for a community corrections center, in which low-risk offenders receive services and guidance to transition into the community. That would cost around $200 million, she said.
The county and state have been working to free up jail beds after years of booking restrictions in Utah’s most populous county, implemented by former Sheriff Jim Winder. The jail has a capacity for 2,000 inmates and has been filled since shortly after it was built. Some of those booking restrictions are still in place.
If something isn’t done about the shortage of jail cells in the coming years, Hoyal and Rivera worry that violent offenders won’t have a place to be incarcerated.
“We have to be able to have a place to take those that need to go to jail, those that are a threat to society, and violent individuals,” Hoyal said. “At what point in time is it going to be only your second- and third-degree felonies that are in that jail?”
Transparency and leadership
Hoyal and Rivera seem to agree on most issues but are divided when it comes to cities leaving the Unified Police Department to start up their own police forces.
Both agree that it’s best for the department if the cities stay. UPD pools resources with its municipalities for detective units, dispatch and SWAT teams in an effort to reduce costs, and losing cities results in a hit on the department’s budget.
Herriman has already left and opened its own department, after leaders expressed concerns about a lack of transparency in the budget and communication from leadership, as well as about the governance structure of the UPD board. Riverton appears on the verge of doing so.
Hoyal has criticized Rivera for a lack of leadership, saying she should have taken steps to stop cities from leaving UPD in the first place, and for blaming the previous administration when she’s had a year to address the issue. He says he’s the right person to stop the hemorrhage.
“We need somebody that’s going to be responsive to our partner cities,” he said. “We need somebody that’s going to answer questions when they have them. Whether it’s about a budget. Whether it’s about a particular case. Whether it’s about an ongoing investigation.”
But Rivera says Herriman had planned to leave long before she arrived and pointed out that Riverton has paused on the move, still considering whether it will stay or go.
She’s also taken steps to address their concerns, replacing the chief financial officer, who she said will provide a budget with information broken out for individual cities, and considering changes to the board’s structure.
As for criticism from Hoyal about her leadership, Rivera said she doesn’t take it to heart.
“Hoyal is part of my leadership,” she said with a shrug, “so I don’t know what he’s thinking when he says that.”