Utah's most-populous county is straining under the inmate crush. The sheriff releases hundreds every month from the 2,000-capacity Adult Detention Center because of overcrowding and now is prepping a second jail, Oxbow, for operation. But even with the new beds, Sheriff Jim Winder concedes more jails offer only a short-term remedy.
"You can't build your way out of this problem," he says.
So the county is contemplating an innovation that would provide a "door No. 2" for nonviolent offenders suspected of substance abuse or mental illness who get nabbed on minor offenses such as disorderly conduct or petty theft.
Instead of putting them behind bars, police could send those wrongdoers to a "receiving center" that would assess their situation and recommend treatment, offering them a better shot at rehabilitation.
Criminal-justice experts see this corrections triage as the next big step for this valley of more than 1 million people, potentially reducing the population of drug abusers and mentally ill offenders who comprise more than 70 percent of the county's inmates.
"We need to turn off the spigot on the front end," says Pat Fleming, who oversees the county's substance-abuse division. "It's like a massive fire hose right now. People are just getting spewed out." ...County officials see a receiving center -- ideally next to the jail in South Salt Lake -- doing more of the same for other nonviolent offenders, steering them away from a jail cell and into community-based mental-health counseling or substance-abuse programs.
The approach has worked in Bexar County, Texas, where officials avoided building a 1,000-bed jail by centralizing services in a Crisis Care Center. The complex now diverts 800 people a month from the jail, providing basic medical care, psychiatric screenings, detox and community treatment connections.
"We are freeing up space for violent offenders," says Leon Evans, president and CEO of the Center for Health Care Services in Bexar County. "It is the right thing to do."
A similar center took root in Orange County, Fla., freeing up 54,000 days of jail beds last year.
"You're paying a huge amount of money to incapacitate nonviolent, nonthreatening, usually nonconvicted people in your county jail," says Don Bjoring, who played a key role in launching the center. "If that's the policy, fine. ... Just remember, you're paying for it."
See also these related stories from the Tribune about Salt Lake's overcrowded local jail: