Jail deaths reporting bill advances to Utah Senate

Friday , February 23, 2018 - 6:06 PM1 comment

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill calling for Utah jails and prisons to report inmate deaths to the state sailed through a Senate committee vote after the sponsor broadened the scope of prescription medication information that must be included.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said Thursday he was alarmed last summer to learn that 24 inmates died in county jails in 2016 — more than double the 2012 total. He said he found most jail deaths, even those attributed to the leading cause, suicide, were tied to opioid abuse.

RELATED: Bill requires Utah jail death documentation, closes 'in-custody' reporting gap

His Senate Bill 205 would require jails to submit annual reports to state executives and legislators about in-custody deaths. It would also require them to give a detailed list of the treatment services they make available to inmates with opioid addictions.

Weiler’s bill comes after two years of evolving controversy over the escalated death toll in jails by the end of 2016. Six of the 24 deaths documented in reports gleaned from public records occurred in the Davis County Jail and two in Weber County.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the Libertas Institute testified in favor of the bill.

“We support this in our long journey to obtain transparency in how inmates are cared for in our jails and prisons,” the ACLU’s Marina Lowe said. “The public has a right to know how and whether the constitutional rights of inmates are being respected.”

Said Molly Davis of Libertas: “We think this legislation can prevent more inmate deaths. It will give the state more insight into what is going on behind jails’ walls so we can address any problems that we find with future legislation. It requires transparency and accountability.”

But Weiler and another senator who spoke in favor of the bill were almost apologetic to Utah’s elected county sheriffs, who run the jails. 

“This bill is really not a finger-pointing, but I think as a Legislature we should be concerned when our death rate is not only increasing but more than doubling,” Weiler told the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee, which he chairs.

The committee advanced the bill to the full Senate with a unanimous vote.

Calling Utah the nation’s leader in jail deaths is “not entirely fair,” Weiler said.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows Utah had the highest per-capita jail death rate in 2014 — 258 per 100,000 inmates. More recent federal statistics are not yet available.

“But we don’t have 100,000 prisoners, so they had to extrapolate that,” Weiler said.

“I think our county sheriffs have an amazingly difficult job, and while I don’t expect that any of them are perfect, I think they’re doing their best,” Weiler said. “I'm not here to cast blame.”

However, Weiler listed several factors that justify the need for a reporting bill.

“Some of the jails have said, ‘Well, they didn't die at our facility; they died at the hospital, so we don't have to count that,’” Weiler said. “I’m saying, yeah, you do have to count that.”

Several deaths in recent years were not treated as in-custody deaths because the injured or ill inmates died later at a hospital. As such, those deaths were not reported to the federal government, which mandates reporting of in-custody deaths.

Weiler’s bill also requires jails to detail their next-of-kin notification procedures. Relatives of some deceased inmates have complained about lack of notification. Two families interviewed about their loved ones said they had to do their own detective work to learn of the deaths.

“That is offensive to me, that a family wouldn't be notified quickly,” Weiler said.

PROJECT: Investigating Northern Utah jail deaths

At many jails, arrestees who have been taking methadone, a narcotic withdrawal drug, are denied it when they go behind bars, Weiler said.

In the latest version of the bill, jails are required to provide to the state details about a deceased inmate’s medication history. That includes a list of drugs that were prescribed before the inmate was jailed; that the inmate did not finish taking before being jailed; that the inmate told the jail it wanted to keep taking; and that the jail declined to dispense.

“So as we as a state are trying to figure out how to react to the opioid crisis, I’m very concerned that the prison becomes a stepping-in between an inmate and the inmate’s doctor in deciding which prescriptions they can take,” Weiler said. “Rather than telling the prisons to stop doing this, all this does is tell them, give us a list … so we can collect that data, and then maybe a year from now we can make an informed decision.”

Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel told the committee the Utah Sheriffs’ Association recently posted its jail standards online, responding to complaints about secrecy.

“We have been taking a tremendous amount of scrutiny over our jails over the last couple of years, and we want transparency,” Noel said.

Weiler said special interest groups had been pushing him to run tougher legislation on the jails. But, he said, “I don't want to micromanage jails. I don’t know a darned thing about jails.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

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