Utah debates smaller prison as inmate population decreases

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah officials are debating whether a decrease in the state's prison population means that a new prison planned for Salt Lake City should have room for 4,000 inmates as planned or whether the plans should be changed to make the facility smaller.

The state's prison population has dropped by 1,100 inmates from 7,214 in 2014 largely because of law changes aimed at giving shorter prison sentences to people convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

About 3,000 inmates are currently housed at the aging prison in Draper, which will be replaced by the new facility in Salt Lake City.

The new prison is expected to be completed in 2020 but Republican Rep. Brad Wilson of Kaysville, who co-chairs the Prison Development Commission, said Wednesday that a facility of that size may not be needed.

Wilson, speaking at a meeting of the Prison Development Commission, said the state should consider whether it needs to build room for between 500 to 1,000 prison beds it may not use.

Utah Department of Corrections executive director Rollin Cook warned that some inmates may re-offend and the state's population could rise, translating into a corresponding increase in people convicted of crimes.

"I'm nervous. I don't want to be the one who says we only need 3,000 beds, but we know for a fact — I hate to break it to everyone — Utah is growing," Cook said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Officials did not make any decisions about the size Wednesday and construction of the new prison is not expected to start until May.

Layton Republican Sen. Jerry Stevenson, the other commission co-chair, told reporters after the meeting that he thinks the new prison near Salt Lake City's airport will be built with 4,000 beds.

"My feeling is, we're going to have one chance to do this right," Stevenson said, according to the Deseret News. "We're anticipating 3 million new people here. So we know this is going to go up."

Stevenson said he's worried about the cost of the prison, which officials originally estimated at $550 million. While that amount has been budgeted, officials recently announced that another $100 million in spending will be needed to upgrade roads, utilities and other prison infrastructure needs.

The cost of the prison could rise as the project proceeds, said Jim Russell of Utah's Division of Facilities Construction and Management, which is overseeing the construction.

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