Jenny Wilson: New program helps released inmates adjust to freedom

Salt Lake County Jail Resource Reentry Program should save taxpayers money.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Sheriff Rosie Rivera, April 26, 2022.

Imagine being released from jail, but your cell phone battery is dead. You have nowhere to go (which might be part of the reason you were in jail in the first place) and no money to get there.

You lost your job while in jail and aren’t sure where to sleep or who to contact. You’re not sure when your court date is or what you should do. It’s hard to imagine how you get your life back on track, isn’t it?

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and I joined dozens of county staff and community partners last week to formally open the new Salt Lake County Jail Resource Reentry Program. The program is designed to release inmates into the community with resources and information to support their reentry into the community.

The program creates an opportunity for intervention and resource support and is the first in the nation that is located within the walls of the jail. As inmates are released through a heavy metal security door, they enter into a room designed to encourage a pause and a reset, with the hope they will engage, ask questions and be open to receiving assistance.

The room has couches, water and snacks, and cell phone chargers. On-site, skilled, caring, and committed staff connect the released inmates with resources based on individual needs. Support includes reviewing upcoming court dates and supervision information, enrollment in Medicaid, assisting with substance abuse and mental health treatment and providing connections to jobs, food, or shelter.

These connections and resources might sound small, but they can be transformational for some. A connection to shelter for the night, legal advice, workforce services, charging a phone to call a loved one or access to health care could help a person from falling deeper into crisis.

Few people released from jail have a strong support network, and fewer have a safe and productive place to return. Many are again confronted with homelessness, addiction, untreated mental illness and other challenges that frequently result in additional incarcerations. Through this new center, released inmates will receive resources on the spot that they may never receive once back in the community.

Beyond the benefits to a released inmate, the hope is that the jail’s recidivism rate (the rate of those returning to jail) will decline due to released inmates taking advantage of resources that will support their reentry. It is costly to have people cycling between jail, homeless shelters, emergency departments and crisis services.

Many of these people have complex physical and mental health conditions that result in the overuse of these costly services without improving their situations. Beyond supporting individuals with a path to success, the goal is to save taxpayers money and make our communities safer.

The program had a soft launch on April 1 of this year and has supported over 700 people. One released inmate took the time to send a note to my office sharing gratitude for the resources and civility provided.

“This is an excellent idea and I am a fortunate first-time user of this program. I really appreciate the support, assistance, and advice post jail release,” he wrote.

As this program continues, reductions in arrests, jail bookings and convictions will be measured. The data will provide a better understanding of key interventions that interrupt the cycle between jails, homeless shelters, emergency departments and crisis services. As with all county programs, we will use evidence-based practices and data to enhance our services and continue to grow the partnerships, networks, and housing options available.

As Sheriff Rivera and I celebrated the official opening of the program this month, it gave us the opportunity to thank the many partners who have made this program a reality. Among them are the sheriff’s corrections team, Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services, Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, Valley Behavioral Health and their trained, dedicated case managers and staff. Investments through the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act made funding the program possible.

It’s important to note that our partnership with Rivera has been crucial to the program’s success. Without her compassion, leadership, and willingness to locate the center within the jail, this program would not be possible.

Recognizing the challenge of recidivism and proposing an impactful solution takes innovation, grit, partnership, and funding. In Salt Lake County, we are closing the gap between jail release and relevant services that can change lives.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson

Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, is mayor of Salt Lake County.