SALT LAKE CITY — Booking restrictions put in place last year to control the spread of COVID-19 at the Salt Lake County Jail have been lifted. But as the KSL Investigators have learned, the jail's population remains 30% below its pre-pandemic holding average.
That's despite rising crime rates, and it's adding to the frustrations the KSL Investigators reported in April 2020, over repeat criminals being booked into jail and quickly released.
There's been a shift, too, in who is held at the jail.
Changes in who's in and who's out of jail
"The population of the Salt Lake County Jail is a very hardcore group," said Chief Deputy Matt Dumont. "Those are the folks that right now, we don't necessarily want in our community."
As of June 23, 2021, the jail housed 1,645 inmates, of which 89% are charged with or convicted of felonies. More than a quarter involve domestic violence.
Hardcore criminals at the county jail shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. It's who isn't in jail that's causing debate. As the pandemic began shutting many things down, the jail saw nearly 1,000 inmates released.
Dumont said at the time, their priorities were to keep COVID-19 out of the jail population, and make sure they weren't holding accused offenders longer than they should, as they anticipated a backlog with court cases.
"We worked with the courts, we worked with the district attorney's office, Legal Defenders' Association and our team worked together to try to identity the folks who were currently in our jail who would be good risks to the community," said Dumont.
In 2019, statistics provided to the KSL Investigators from the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office show nearly as many people were booked into jail as were released that year. On average, the jail saw 2,539 people booked in, and 2,576 released every month.
In 2020, the jail not only saw significantly fewer people booked into jail but significantly more were released. Between March and June, 6,560 people were booked and 7,537 were released.
So far in 2021, more alleged criminals are staying in jail than being released. On average, 1,810 are booked in every month, and just 1,751 are released.
Released and supervised
Over the past two years, Dumont said those released are typically nonviolent misdemeanor offenders. While they have been deemed safe enough to go back into the community, their crimes aren't always victimless.
Dumont said many offenders are released to the county's Pretrial Supervision.
"They supervise individuals who have not yet been convicted," he explained. "They supervise them in the community instead of in the jail. So, the folks that they focus on the most are the lowest level offenders: people who would be good risks or better risks to the community."
Pretrial supervision comes with requirements, including certain conditions by which they must abide while not held in jail. From January through May 2021, their office supervised 4,464 people. Of those, 776, or 17%, never showed up to initiate that supervision.
Impacts on policing
What happens at the jail has an impact on policing.
Sgt. Keith Horrocks with the Salt Lake City Police Department said it can be frustrating when criminals arrested one day are back out on the street the next.
"I would submit that if a person goes to jail and spends 4-5 hours in jail it's, 'OK, I can go right back to where I was in the area I was committing the crime and basically pick up where I left off.'"
That's why his agency launched the Crime Control Plan earlier this year, in partnership with federal agencies like the U.S. Attorney's Office, FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The plan aims to review charges for reoffenders to see if they rise to federal crimes.
"They have more teeth to them," said Horrocks, noting federal charges typically carry bigger punishments. "Now we're able to take that apex criminal that is going out and continually victimizing people and put them away for, I think the current average sentence is 33 months. So that's important because for 33 months, that specific criminal is not out there victimizing more people."
As of the end of May, 97 people have been arrested and charged with federal offenses under this partnership. For those whose crimes do not rise to a federal level, Dumont said the jail population has gradually grown and anticipates they will once again see pre-pandemic levels of people housed there.
Bail and release reforms play a part
Dumont was clear to note that changes in jail booking and releasing practices aren't solely a byproduct of the pandemic. "We've seen some pretty significant legislation introduced that changed the way the courts would make supervision decisions."
The Utah Legislature passed HB 206 during the 2020 session, which directed alleged criminals be released to the lowest level of supervision if they met certain conditions. This bill had support of several county attorneys and public defenders as it kept people out of jail who would only be there because they could not afford bail.
But in the 2021 General Session, HB220 was passed repealing many of the provisions of HB 206 that had only been in effect for four months. Sponsors of the bill claimed the reforms meant people who should be held were instead going free.
Additional changes came in the 2021 Special Session with HB1006, which puts the power to release people from jail on the sheriff or bail commissioner. Each jurisdiction is allowed to release someone on their own recognizance if they meet certain criteria. It passed unanimously.