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SOUTH SALT LAKE — Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder defended the booking restriction policy of the county jail Friday in a passionate, sometimes tense meeting with reporters.
Following a KSL-TV investigation, Winder said he wanted to set the record straight about into the policy of the Salt Lake County Jail to refrain from booking inmates on suspicion of misdemeanor offenses, with the exception of DUI, domestic violence, child abuse, violation of a protective order or any offense for which a conviction would land the person on the state sex/kidnapping offender registry.
That policy allows officers wide discretion to request overrides in cases with unique circumstances, Winder said. A very low percentage of override requests from officers are rejected, he said.
"We understand that ... other information has to be relayed from a human being to another human being about the individual offender's risk to our community," Winder said.
The sheriff's remarks were partly in response to a KSL-TV story that aired Thursday in which investigative reporter Debbie Dujanovic drew attention to concerns from other police officials and at least one resident that unsafe conditions arose from the jail policy and that it sent the wrong message to criminals.
Data from Salt Lake City police show 40 percent of offenders apprehended by Salt Lake City police during a four week period between January and February were not ultimately taken to jail. According to a written report prepared by Salt Lake police, arrests dropped about 25 percent from 9,772 in 2015 to 7,368 in 2016.
All year-to-year changes within the previous decade were within 10 percentage points, but the recent change in number of arrests was "drastic," Salt Lake police said.
"Diversion, rehabilitation, community outreach, and public education are generally much better options than incarceration, but only when they are relevant and applicable," the agency's report states. "Without the capability to book offenders into jail – specifically for the aforementioned quality of life crimes – officers are left without any means of authoritative presence, which in turn breeds disorder and an attitude of wanton disregard for the law and the community by repeat and known offenders who are in no danger of legal repercussions."
“It’s been ridiculous,” Salt Lake police Sgt. Scott Martgous told Dujanovic. “We need to be able to book people into jail for the crimes they commit.”
The sergeant said it is "demoralizing" that even a person who assaults a police officer, or is caught in the act of a significant crime, can avoid any visit to the jail.
Dujanovic also interviewed Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, who said the policy is "impacting the way we want to serve our community."
“You can’t lock the front door of the jail, you just can’t,” Brown said.
Winder challenged the idea that officers were being left without recourse when arresting someone they think is dangerous or likely to re-offend quickly. Dujanovic pressed him about his agency's responsiveness to the concerns of police officials, including those with whom she spoke for her story, to which Winder responded that his agency keeps a record of all officers' requests for overrides.
"Ma'm, if they call down here, we've got it documented, and if they don't document it, I don't know (about it). ... You better give me a name and you better give me an example, because the examples I have here in writing indicate that officers daily come down here and override our cap management plan," Winder said, his voice rising. "So I'll see your 'they's' and I'll raise you documentation."
Winder also said that a large portion of misdemeanor offenders who are no longer jailed are often those who would spend only a few hours there.
At the time that the new policy was announced, he said, 52 percent of all people booked never made it to the facility's "general population" area because of bail releases, overcrowding releases, failure to file charges within the required amount of time and other reasons.
Winder said he contacted every agency in August 2015 to hold a meeting concerning upcoming policy changes in regards to booking.
Winder said the changes were also reviewed with the Salt Lake County District, the Salt Lake County Council and the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council prior to being implemented.
One Salt Lake City woman also spoke to KSL-TV about her recent experience with squatters who lived next door to her. Police handcuffed several people who were living in a neighboring home illegally, said Kim Stockdale, but at least some in the group returned later that day after not being booked into jail.
Though they were not able to break in a second time, Stockdale said, "justice was not done" when the residents avoided a jail visit.
“It means to me that someone can get away with whatever they want to, and I don’t like that," she said.
Winder said Friday that most people underestimate the breadth of functions the jail is expected to fill. He lamented the lack of other resources to treat those who may have other realistic options besides jail.
"The reality is in our community there aren't a lot of other alternatives," he said, referring to treatment instead of incarceration, as well as other diversionary programs.