SALT LAKE CITY — A state committee has recommended a series of initiatives to help Utah’s county jails reduce deaths, improve suicide prevention and help inmates recover from opioid addiction and withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice reported there were seven deaths in county jails in 2018, unchanged from the 2017 total but down from the record 27 reported by jails in 2016.
The Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee received reports Wednesday ordered by lawmakers in response to the spike in jail deaths and the effects of mental health problems and opioid abuse steadily rising in county jails.
The inmate health care study committee recommended that the state work more closely with counties to standardize minimum requirements necessary “not only to protect the health, safety, and rights of inmates, but also to protect the facilities against legal liability that might arise from an inmate death or other events that may occur in the absence of such standards.”
Weber and Davis counties, for example, are defending themselves in federal court against civil rights suits filed by relatives of inmates who died behind bars, allegedly due to deliberately indifferent medical care.
“A continuum of care should include, first and foremost, diversion from incarceration for low risk offenders — particularly those with mental health and substance use disorders better served in a non-correctional setting,” the report said.
Offenders who are jailed, the report said, must receive “screening, assessment, and evaluation; triage; emergency intervention; treatment, including medication assisted treatment; and the capacity to address more chronic, longer term needs.”
The committee pointed to a need for sufficient funding by the state and counties to implement the recommendations.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2015 paid for jail-based screenings at booking for mental health and substance use disorders, and a model was developed in which larger county jails could do screens in smaller county jails by video remote.
But it did not last.
“The funding for this was cut in subsequent years, and then completely taken away” this year, the report said.
Physical, behavioral health and suicide screenings should be conducted before or immediately following jail booking, the committee recommended.
In Davis County, Sheriff Kelly Sparks said Wednesday his jail has set up a nurse’s station outside the entrance to the booking area, so inmates can be immediately assessed by a medical professional.
If the inmate is not deemed medically stable, the arresting officer must first take the arrestee to a hospital for evaluation and treatment.
Further, the committee recommended medication-assisted treatment for drug addictions be increased, both for inmates while they’re incarcerated and after they are released from jail.
The committee additionally suggested a jail tele-health system be developed; that student loan forgiveness and tax incentives be made available for medical professionals who treat inmates; and that the state better leverage Medicaid funding to offset jail health care costs.
In its second annual report on jail and prison deaths, the justice commission said four of the seven jail deaths were suicides and the others were due to alcohol or drug intoxication.
The state prison system, meanwhile, reported 17 deaths in 2018, down three from the previous year. Most deaths were due to illness, 14. The other three were suicides.
The 2018 Legislature mandated the annual record keeping of incarceration deaths. Before, county jails and the prisons were not required to report deaths at the state level.