Freedom isn’t free.
Neither is incarceration. Or detoxification. Or rehabilitation.
Salt Lake County, with urging and promises of assistance from Salt Lake City and state officials, recently put up $7.5 million to partially reopen the old Oxbow jail and provide space for 368 inmates.
The idea was not just to house the increased number of people who were being arrested in the crackdown on drug dealing and other crimes that were epidemic in and around the city’s Rio Grande neighborhood. It was also to provide detox and counseling and other services that would stop — or at least slow — the revolving door of low-level offenders who were often both criminal and victim.
It was, for reasons both efficient and humane, to be the polar opposite of lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key. But that requires not only beds and doors and locks and keys. It requires staff, trained staff, enough to keep the place going and secure and safe 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 366 days a year.
And there, says Sheriff Rosie Rivera, is the problem.
Being a county corrections officer doesn’t pay very well. Not considering the hard work involved. Not compared to the salaries and benefits and retirement plans offered by other law enforcement agencies here and elsewhere.
Without enough trained personnel to run the place — right now the staff is 78 bodies short — Oxbow is only partially open. Pushing officers to work more overtime, the sheriff says, is an option she would rather avoid, as staff burnout is already a big problem in that line of work.
And Oxbow is not the only public safety agency that is seriously short-handed right now. Across Utah, officials say, we are down some 400 officers from where we ought to be.
Rivera and her staff are crunching the numbers to come up with proposals for the kind of pay rates and benefits that would be needed to attract, not just folks who need a job, but people ready, willing and able to do such a demanding and dangerous job in an economy that is basically at full employment.
Even government agencies are subject to the law of supply and demand. The demand for law enforcement officers is high. They supply is low. The price is going to go up.
Our elected officials will just have to face that fact and find a way to fill those slots.
The safety of the whole community depends on it.