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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers advanced a bill Wednesday that would make selling or distributing illegal drugs within 100 feet of a homeless facility a felony.
On a unanimous vote, HB365 was forwarded out of the House Political Subdivisions Committee to the House floor, but not without concerns that the new law would do nothing to address the ongoing shortage of county jail beds.
"This is not the silver bullet," acknowledged the bill's sponsor, House Minority Whip Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. "I don't see this as the thing that fixes this. … But I present it to you for discussion purposes as one possible tool that could be in the quiver that we can use."
Fueling Briscoe's effort is the open-air drug market surrounding The Road Home shelter downtown, on top of an aim to shield the city's four future homeless resource centers from drug dealers.
HB365 would add homeless facilities to the list of places that have higher punishments for drug distribution, including public schools, public parks, library grounds or church grounds.
The aim, Briscoe said, is not to target those who are addicted but those who prey on them — particularly drug cartels "there to make some money off of people's misery and addiction."
But Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has said thanks to the state's justice reinvestment initiative — meant to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison to jail and, ideally, treatment — passing without Medicaid expansion, his jail is overflowing, with no place to put criminals who should be locked up for preying on the homeless.
That's an issue that Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, grappled with when considering whether to support the bill, acknowledging that Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, is working on legislation to fund enough jail beds outside of Salt Lake County to help handle the overflow.
"We can increase penalties, but absent enforcement, it does little," Dunnigan said. "If we can get some bad actors of the street and teach people there is consequence, that will help. But we need to put some funding into this."
"I understand your point," he told Dunnigan. "This alone without other support is insufficient."
Others, however, spoke against the bill, concerned that it would backpedal the efforts of justice reinvestment.
"We are concerned that creating zones for enhanced penalties will end up just making drug crimes a felony across the board again," said Marina Lowe, legal counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.
Jennifer Valencia, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, also warned lawmakers that creating such zones could push drug dealers into neighborhoods.
"We all share the same goal of having Utah in general not be a place where drugs are used or distributed, but we are not convinced this is not a step backward," Valencia said.
Dave Spatafore, a lobbyist for Midvale, urged lawmakers to support the bill, reminding them that the problem isn't confined to Salt Lake's Rio Grande area. He said drugs are a constant problem for the homeless shelter serving families and children in Midvale.
"Children go into the bathrooms and find hypodermic needles. Children go to the playground and find drugs and needles," Spatafore said. "We need the help to make sure we keep that location as drug-free as possible. This will help."
Despite concerns, lawmakers voted unanimously to advance the bill to the House floor.
After the vote, Briscoe said in a prepared statement that "the concerns people have voiced are valid."
“We need to do what we can to keep people experiencing homelessness from being preyed upon by criminals," he said. "We need to protect the neighborhoods around these shelters, to ensure full community support and participation. We cannot and should not be creating pockets where illegal activity is allowed to occur simply because the population is vulnerable.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: KatieMcKellar1