The latest federal data on county jail deaths validates the trend seen locally in the record mortality year of 2016 in Utah, but an exact accounting of the annual toll remains elusive because of persistent patchwork reporting processes.
According to the new Bureau of Justice Statistics report, Utah was among the top three states in jail deaths per capita in 2016, with a rate of 305 deaths per 100,000 local jail inmates.
The New Hampshire (375) and South Dakota (426) rates were higher, but the federal agency flagged their numbers as questionable for interpretation because of South Dakota’s low sample size and New Hampshire’s 10-year record of inconsistent reporting.
The national average death rate was 149.
The justice agency reported 22 Utah jail deaths in 2016. However, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice reported only 18 jail deaths for that year, while a Standard-Examiner study showed 25 deaths, based on individual incident reports obtained from the 27 counties with jails.
The federal numbers are compiled from reports that counties are required to file each year to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Utah CCJJ numbers come from a separate survey of counties mandated by state legislation in 2018.
Before 2018, state officials never saw any county incarceration death reports that were sent to the federal government, and counties often did not publicly report jail deaths locally.
Officials who participated in the first annual state survey in 2018 complained several counties did not submit reports.
Another barrier to reaching exact or consistent death reporting numbers is that the federal reports are now lagging behind by four years.
But based on the most recent annual CCJJ reports, jail deaths have dropped markedly from the 2016 peak. Total deaths in 2017 and 2018 were seven each year, the agency reported.
Since 2016, the Davis County Jail has reported one death, that of Gregory Hayes, who died Dec. 14, 2017, of a drug overdose while in a holding cell during the booking process.
The Weber County Jail reported one death in 2018 and two in 2019.
Since the wave of deaths in 2016, the state has studied the causes and set in motion programs to improve suicide prevention and better care for inmates who have mental health problems or narcotics addiction histories or are withdrawing from drugs.
In the current legislative session, House Bill 38 would authorize a series of steps to help county jails give released inmates a “warm handoff” back into society with immediate access to substance addiction treatment and mental health services.
The House passed the bill on a 43-27 vote Jan. 31, but the Senate tabled it Feb. 19 after concerns were raised about the state’s ability to fund it. Unless senators vote to revive it, the bill will die there.