SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate bill that would require Utah jails to report deaths, along with their causes and the role played by substance abuse, is on its way to the House.
Senators voted 27-0 Wednesday in favor of Senate Bill 205, which stems from legislative and public alarm about a wave of deaths in jails over the last few years.
The bill calls for county jails and state prisons to submit annual reports to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The reports are to detail deaths behind bars, their causes, plus jails’ policies addressing how inmates suffering from opioid addiction or withdrawal are handled.
Information also will be collected about prescription medications that jails may have refused to continue for inmates who died in custody.
“Most deaths are suicides, and many of these deaths occur because people are being forced to detox without any treatment or services or help,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler of Woods Cross, told the Senate.
Weiler said the bill does not mention the matter of jail and prison standards that, until recently, were kept secret by the Utah Sheriffs’ Association and the Utah Department of Corrections because of proprietary agreements with the creator of the standards, consultant Gary DeLand.
He said lawmakers obtained temporary access to the secret standards only after six months of negotiations between state attorneys and DeLand.
“That to me is absolutely reprehensible, but that’s the status quo,” Weiler said.
The sheriffs’ group and the Department of Corrections announced Jan. 26 they would work together on a new set of standards that will be publicly available. In the meantime, the sheriffs’ association recently posted many of the current standards on its website after the consultant cleansed them of his proprietary information.
Records collected from Utah’s jails showed 24 reported county jail deaths in 2016. At least two other deaths later were attributed to incidents in jails, but the inmates died later at hospitals. Weiler said his bill eliminates any such reporting “escape clauses.”
The senator also said information he gathered showed there were 27 in-custody deaths in Utah in the first seven months of 2017.
Weiler amended the bill just before Senate passage to add a provision prohibiting jails from including inmate identifying information in the annual state reports. The clause was added to address concerns about inmates’ medical privacy and federal laws that protect it, he said.
Elsewhere in the Legislature, representatives are considering House Bill 410. It orders the creation of a multi-agency work group to study alcohol and substance abuse withdrawal in Utah’s jails.
The panel is charged with determining how many jail deaths in 2013-2016 involved alcohol or drug withdrawal and submitting recommendations to legislators by November this year.