Weber County Jail

The interior of the Weber County Jail is shown in 2004. Since 2011, jail policy has prohibited news photography inside the jail.

SALT LAKE CITY — Intensive up-front screening for mental health and substance abuse problems has been identified as the top priority in a state examination of county jails.

The state launched a similar screening effort under 2016’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, but the money has dried up.

“The funding isn’t really there anymore, so the jails wouldn’t be able to do this if we recommend it,” said Mary Lou Emerson, a state official coordinating the study into how Utah jails handle substance-using inmates.

“There is a recognition there would need to be additional resources,” said Emerson, director of the Utah Substance Abuse Advisory Council.

The workgroup that lawmakers created to look into jail substance abuse met Monday to refine potential proposals to submit to the Legislature for consideration in the 2019 session. With Senate Bill 205, lawmakers were reacting to a spate of deaths in county jails, which hit a record 27 in 2016.

“The group is pretty focused in on the need to do screening on individuals for substance abuse and mental health,” Emerson said.

She noted the workgroup was heeding the results of a related report on Utah jail deaths from 2013 through 2017 that showed suicide is by far the most common cause.

Better screening can help jails identify more inmates with suicide risk and those with potentially deadly opiate withdrawal conditions.

In 2016, the state spent $2.5 million on an intensive jail intake screening program that helped counties improve the reviews during the booking process, said Dave Walsh, deputy director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The Weber County Jail was set up as a hub to provide screening help to smaller jails.

But funding for that program declined to about $800,000 in the most recent year, and Weber’s jail is no longer providing the hub service because of the funding cut.

Weber did receive $294,000 this year and is focusing on screening with an eye toward reducing repeat criminal offenses by inmates, Walsh said.

The workgroup meets again on Nov. 28 to finalize recommendations to the Legislature.

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