Funding, Oversight At Issue Following County Jail Deaths

May 31, 2017

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is calling for independent inspections of county jails across the state. This follows a string of deaths inside county lockups linked to health problems and opioid withdrawals.

Anna Thomas with the ACLU of Utah told the Ogden-Standard Examiner in a news report last week, there is little to no oversight for Utah’s county jails. She added there are no penalties for poor jail conditions. Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice show Utah leads in county jail deaths per capita. Thomas suggested the lack of oversight might be why.

But Republican State Representative Paul Ray says jails are being asked to do too much.

“We’re using them as de facto mental health hospital beds,” Ray says. “And so they’re being inundated with people with mental health/substance abuse issues, which really they’re not designed to hold.”

Utah lawmakers passed a major criminal justice reform package in 2015. But, the mental health and substance abuse piece of that legislation was never fully funded. Ray says he’s working this year to find the money to treat inmates who need that help as part of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative. About $10 million. 

But Ray says one change that could improve oversight would be requiring jail officials report deaths to the state.

“I think if we would give them some kind of standardized system so the state has some way to track the deaths, the cause of deaths and how things are handled,” Ray says. “I think it not only helps the state but it helps the Sheriff’s with their jails so they can do a better job and gain some public trust in how the jails are being handled.”

Ray has already filed a bill this year to give the state some oversight over county jails and potentially take over a county jail if it’s not performing to state standards. He prepared the legislation after Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder introduced a policy barring police from using the jail to book low-level offenders due to overcrowding.