The Utah Sheriffs’ Association has decided to publicly release the bulk of its Utah Jail Standards, the policy framework that was kept secret because of a private consultant’s proprietary business interests.
The sheriffs’ decision follows two years of building controversy over deaths in Utah’s county jails and related criticisms that standards and jail inspection processes were locked away from the public.
Further, said Aaron Kennard, the association’s executive director, the sheriffs are forming a committee with the Utah Department of Corrections to develop a next-generation set of jail and prison standards that will be completely open to the public.
A series of deaths in Northern Utah county jails in 2016 drew media attention, criticism from civil liberties groups, and lawsuits accusing jails of negligence in providing medical care, suicide prevention, and mental health services to inmates, many of them pre-trial detainees.
Federal data shows Utah has led the nation in per-capita deaths in county jails. The Standard-Examiner’s gathering of records from Utah’s 29 counties revealed there were at least 24 deaths in 2016, including six in Davis County.
At a Jan. 18 gathering, sheriffs reached an agreement with consultant Gary DeLand “to release the standards as fast as he can,” Kennard said in an interview Friday, Jan. 26.
It may take several months before all 600 standards are made public because DeLand’s company, DeLand and Associates, needs time to remove portions of the standards that he regards as trade secrets. Most of that information involves voluminous citations of case law that provide a legally researched rationale for the individual standards.
The association will post the standards on its website, Kennard said.
Story continues below an example of the Utah Jail Standards.
“The sections on suicide are a hot button, so those will be first,” said Kennard, a former Salt Lake County sheriff who recently retired as director of the National Sheriffs’ Association in Washington, D.C.
He said sheriffs met with Utah Corrections Director Rollin Cook on Tuesday. They agreed to begin work on new standards that will “go above and beyond the bare minimum” of constitutional requirements in the handling of inmates.
SPECIAL REPORT: Investigating Northern Utah jail deaths
“Society today expects more than the bare minimum,” Kennard said. “We want standards that are above board and transparent.”
The sheriffs’ group is a private, non-profit entity not subject to Utah’s open records laws. Kennard said he hired DeLand in the early 1990s to develop standards for the jails. DeLand, a former Utah Department of Corrections executive director, developed the standards for the association and later marketed the concept to corrections officials in other states.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Maria Peterson confirmed the formation of a committee to develop new Utah jail standards.
“Transparency is essential to building trust in our corrections system,” Cook said in a prepared statement later Friday. “By operating under standards that address the needs of Utah’s correctional system, we can be accountable to our citizens while providing safe and humane environments for the people who work in and who are incarcerated in our state.”
Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson said Friday the moves “will accomplish what we’re always striving for as a public agency: to be as open and transparent as we can be. I hate to have it appear we are not being open with the public we serve.”
He recently said he favored making the standards public, and Friday added that it’s “better late than never” for the association to reveal them.
Kennard said the 600 standards guide how jails operate and what they do to provide for the health, safety and programs for inmates and to keep jail personnel safe.
Weber and Davis counties are facing civil suits over three of the 2016 deaths.
Kara Noakes died in the Davis jail after being picked up on a traffic-related charge; misdemeanor drug suspect Heather Miller died at the Davis lockup after falling from a top bunk, and theft suspect Marion Herrera died in the Weber jail of opioid withdrawal and dehydration. Their families accuse the jails of negligence and deliberate indifference.
Meanwhile, Utah legislators are reviewing jail governance during their current session. One lawmaker, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is sponsoring a bill to require jails and prisons to provide annual reports of in-custody deaths.