Commentary: Salt Lake County public safety budget is still underfunded

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera speaks along with Mayor Ben McAdams, on the current efforts to move eligible Operation Rio Grande arrestees out of jail and into treatment, during a news conference at the First Step House, Thursday, September 7, 2017.

Several recent developments in Salt Lake prove that there is a problem with the county’s public safety budget and the operating plan of Operation Rio Grande.

The ACLU released a report that questioned the 5,000 arrests from Operation Rio Grande. The operation has led to many homeless people being arrested hundreds of times for low-level misdemeanor crimes and further criminalized homelessness. The many arrests and tickets have made it more difficult for the homeless to try to leave their situation.

The Salt Lake Tribune also reported that the two candidates for sheriff expressed concern about the lack of jail space for arrested criminals. Sheriff Rosie Rivera was quoted in the story saying, “We’ve been at capacity for over five years, but nobody wanted to admit it.”

The recent release of the Salt Lake County Jail Dashboard shows that the average prior bookings is 11. More than nine have had more than 100 bookings, and two inmates have had more than 180! The current jail population is 2,194, and 60 percent are classified as unemployed; 363 are felony 1 offenses; 643 are felony 2 offenses; 838 are felony 3 offenses; 289 are misdemeanor A; and 62 are misdemeanor B charges.

The Oxbow jail has had 380 free beds for the past 10 years due to funding cutbacks. Although the county budgeted for opening all of the free beds this last year to help with Operation Rio Grande, the sheriff did not have enough jailers to open the two free pods and was only able to open one pod at Oxbow after closing another pod at the main county jail. There is an 18 percent turnover, and 20 percent are involved in assaults by jailed criminals.

Many officers watch the person whom they just booked walk out of the jail while the officer is doing the paperwork. This results in frustration on the part of the officers, which can lead to significant turnover, lack of officer retention and recruitment challenges. Sheriff Rivera and her predecessor, Jim Winder, have asked for more funding to provide more beds in the jail for many years. Law enforcement in Salt Lake Valley has been complaining for years about the revolving-door Salt Lake County jail, which is now, again, implementing jail booking restrictions.

County Mayor Ben McAdams released his recommended county budget last week that provides more funding to try, again, to open up all of Oxbow jail. It shows that only 22.5 percent of employees in the district attorney’s office are properly compensated. This leads to high turnover that some say is 30 percent. Contributing factors are the heavy workload and increased caseloads that are near 20,000 cases this year. The DA is asking for five more prosecutor positions (which will go unfilled if compensation is not adequate) and three more investigator positions.

“Not only have cases increased,” says the county budget report, “but violent crime and sexual assault cases in particular have increased.”

McAdams keeps saying every year that public safety is his top priority of the budget. But his recommendations do not resolve the jail and DA issues that allow criminals to keep victimizing citizens. His recommendations are much less than recommended by the DA and sheriff. The budget needs to have increased funding to not just open up all jail beds in the county, but continue to pay for the 300 out-of-county jailed inmates, which will provide the 600 jail beds that the DA recommended for Operation Rio Grande. Without sufficient jail beds, there is no threat of long-term incarceration if the individual does not stay in addiction treatment.

We are way beyond “We can’t arrest our way out of this.” The revolving-door jail and booking restrictions have to stop. Criminal behavior should result in jail. Please consider these facts and vote.

George Chapman

George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City and writes a blog at georgechapman.net.

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