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SL sheriff walks back contentious, felony-only jail policy


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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Jail is preparing for an influx of inmates as a controversial policy is relaxed.

The change comes as the county tries out new ways to address the inmate overcrowding that has flared tension among law enforcement leaders in Utah's capital city.

The new policy went into effect Friday at 5 p.m. It means people suspected of some misdemeanor crimes, not just felonies, will now be booked into Salt Lake County Jail.

"We just got notified of it this afternoon" said Unified Police Department detective Ken Hansen. The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office told officers via email the jail was preparing for "an influx of arrestees," Hansen said.

The jail has struggled to accommodate more inmates as the county's population has grown and reduced penalties on drug crimes since 2015 have landed offenders in jail instead of prison. Under a policy put in place under Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, the jail had stopped housing people arrested for investigation of misdemeanors when it was near capacity.

The policy was designed to reserve beds for only the most dangerous offenders, but it drew strong criticism earlier this year.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said in February the strategy encouraged crime on downtown streets, drawing offenders from other counties to Salt Lake because they knew they could break the law without being arrested.

"You can’t lock the front door of the jail, you just can’t,” Brown said at the time.

Winder said last month that would change. He announced his agency would contract with other jails to send inmates there and free up room for new arrests in the state's most populous county. The County Council recently approved fronting $705,000 to the sheriff's office to start opening beds in other counties until $2.8 million in state funds, matched by the county, kicks in starting in July.

The sheriff's staff and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski did not immediately respond to messages left Friday afternoon. And an employee for Salt Lake City police said administrators were out of the office Friday and that she could not make any of them available.

The department directed Unified officers to arrest suspects in class A-misdemeanor cases for booking into the jail. Class A is the most severe type of misdemeanor, punishable in Utah by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Hansen and his colleagues were preparing for more beds to become available after the sheriff's May announcement, he said. The Friday shift does not have an end date, Hansen added.

In Utah, some example of a class A misdemeanors are: assault that causes substantial injury or that targets a pregnant person; some cases of domestic violence and enticing a minor; violating a protective order; theft of property worth $500 to $1,500.

Salt Lake City and county leaders have long debated how to cut down on crime, zeroing in on Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood, where a shelter and services for Utah's homeless are overwhelmed.

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Annie Knox

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