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State Shortchanging Jails, Sheriffs Say

State Shortchanging Jails, Sheriffs Say

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- With the state boasting a $112 million surplus, legislators are talking about tax cuts. But at the same time, they are shortchanging jails on the costs of housing felons, sheriffs say.

Last week, the Utah Department of Corrections said the $9.5 million 2005 fiscal year budget for jail reimbursements will run out this month, leaving an estimated $1.7 million shortfall -- which the counties have to cover.

Both county and state officials say the budget has consistently fallen short every fiscal year since the system was set up more than 15 years ago.

The state's 2006 fiscal year begins July 1, but none of the new state funds can be used to cover the shortfall from 2005.

"There's a definite distrust with the Legislature," said Davis County Sheriff Bud Cox, who is president of the Utah Sheriffs Association.

Cox said many county sheriffs feel the Legislature doesn't keep its promises -- and even some legislators agree.

"I know both sides, and I'll be honest with you, I don't think the Legislature has kept its promise," said Sen. David Thomas, R-South Weber and co-chairman of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

Thomas, who is Summit County's chief civil deputy attorney, feels the Legislature has gone back on a deal to cover 70 percent of the costs of felons who are sentenced to do time in county jails.

But with budget shortfalls, the state ends up paying only about 60 percent or less, Cox said.

The root of the controversy goes back to the early 1990s, when the state took over all courts that handle felony charges, said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem.

Valentine said there were trade-offs with the counties. "Those trade-offs dealt with the fact that we were operating all of the cost of the courts," and the counties were expected to handle the jails.

Valentine said counties soon demanded that the state pay 100 percent of jail incarceration costs for these inmates. An agreement with then-House Speaker Marty Stephens resulted in the current 70 percent program.

"There's been this sort of schoolyard fight that's been going on over the past 20 years," Valentine said.

State officials suggest some county jails are billing the state for inmates not included under the agreement, contributing to the shortfall.

"This has got a long history," said Chris Mitchell, deputy director for the Utah Department of Corrections. "We've worked hard to make it work as well as we can."

Corrections supplies the projected numbers that the Legislature uses to estimate how much to budget each year. When asked how the numbers could fall short each year, Mitchell said there were many factors.

According to Corrections, more judges are sending felons to do jail time instead of prison. From 1997, the number of offenders sent to jail has increased by 55 percent. The length of sentences has also increased. Since 1997, the average sentence has risen from 119 days to 170 days, a 43 percent increase.

Valentine said the only way to clear the picture is to conduct an audit of the jail reimbursement program.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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