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Flood of substance abusers challenges Utah jails, vexes counties

Wednesday , August 09, 2017 - 5:15 AM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Better substance addiction treatment for inmates could become a cure for what ails some Utah jails, state and county officials say.

The problem is deciding who’s going to foot the bill.

RELATED: New avenues sought for drug detox in Utah jails

“I would love to see enhanced substance abuse services in the jail and after jail, but the trick is, those additional funds come from the taxpayers,” Davis County Commissioner Jim Smith said.

Smith and other Davis officials are still taking heat for a more than 20 percent county tax increase approved in 2016 but which is just now showing up on property tax notices.

“We’ve really tried to run as efficiently as we can and not ask for ridiculously large tax increases.” he said. “We do not have any plans for increasing taxes to increase jail services.”

Jails in Utah counties have received additional scrutiny over the past year because of an uptick in the numbers of in-custody deaths. County sheriff’s officials have noted that jail populations are increasingly dominated by people with substance abuse or mental health problems.

The situation has spurred calls for more regulation of jails and increased emphasis on rehabilitative services to help inmates while they’re behind bars — and support them after release in staying clean and finding jobs and housing.

“If the county had money, it would be a wise investment because mental health issues and drug addiction are one of the most significant problems we have in the criminal justice system,” Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said.

Aggressive programs in three phases would be called for in an ideal world, Rawlings said: treatment for pretrial defendants who are out on bail; enhanced in-custody programs; and post-release treatment as part of probation.

Existing drug court, plea in abeyance and drug probation programs do help, “but if we had the resources we could assist a lot more,” Rawlings said.

Such programs cut down on “repeat players” going in and out of jail, he said.

U.S. Department of Justice data shows 45 percent of defendants convicted of drug possession will commit a similar crime within a few years, and the more often someone is arrested on a drug offense, the likelihood of re-offending increases further.

Flooding of jails with substance abusers is a societal problem, Rawlings said, “but the primary responsibility is with the state of Utah because the vast majority of (inmates) are state prosecutions, not city misdemeanors.”

Rep. Lee Perry of Box Elder County, House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee chairman, was in Boston this week attending a legislators’ conference on law enforcement and incarceration issues.

He said some states are giving grants to county jails for improved alcohol and drug abuse programs. The money comes from costs savings in the prison system, he said.

“The state ought to be … coming up with money to give them the programming,” said Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant.

Under Utah’s 2015 Justice Reinvestment Initiative, more convicts are ending up serving time in county jails rather than the state prison.

“We can’t put these people out in the county jails” without helping the counties deal with the attendant issues, Perry said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

In a phone interview Monday, Smith was asked about other matters involving the Davis County Jail.

Regarding the number of deaths at the Farmington jail in 2016, Smith cautioned against describing the recent experience as a statistically defining trend. Davis last year had five reported jail deaths, according to investigative records, and Utah jails overall had 23 — the most since 2000.

“It’s something obviously we take seriously, yet at the same time I can’t comment on specifics,” Smith said of the 2016 deaths, citing litigation concerns.

“I hope there’s no perception that we take human life lightly by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “We are concerned about what has happened.”

Smith, the commission’s liaison to the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, said he could not comment about the jail having been found out of compliance with Utah Department of Corrections jail inspection standards in December 2016.

Of jail oversight in general, Smith said, “We are trying to listen carefully to the professionals, the state, those that oversee jail operations at a state level. There are standards that are set and we want to make sure we are following them.”

Smith said he questioned whether tougher state regulation of jails would be a solution to preventing deaths.

“If the state takes control of the jails, in some ways they’re just a prison,” he said.

Smith said he has regular meetings with Sheriff Todd Richardson, and sheriff’s administrators appear at commission meetings frequently to discuss contracts and other issues.

Efforts to contact Richardson were not immediately successful Tuesday.

The county commission sets budgets for all departments, including the Sheriff’s Office, but the sheriff, as an elected official, is responsible for operation of the sheriff’s office and the jail.

“We do not want to micromanage any department,” Smith said. “That would be imprudent. It’s non-professional to take control of someone’s services, be it the sheriff, the recorder, the clerk. But we listen to the overall budget presentations and try to make intelligent decisions on whatever they want to spend money on.”

Smith added, “It is a challenge with elected officials. I don’t control them, they can’t be fired, I can’t promote them. They report to the public.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at 801 625-4224 or Follow on Twitter at @mshenefelt and Facebook at

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