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Some Say Crowded County Jail a Taxpayer Money Waste

Some Say Crowded County Jail a Taxpayer Money Waste

Posted - May 4, 2004 at 5:35 p.m.



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Debbie Dujanovic ReportingThe price of justice at the Salt Lake County Jail, are you getting short-changed? Tonight we uncover what some call a big waste of taxpayer money.

The jail is for people who are charged with serious crimes, right? Not necessarily. A surprising number of people are there for very minor offenses. It's how the system is set up, and it's costing you money.

What you can't see from the outside of the Salt Lake County Jail is that it's at capacity. More than 1900 inmates are in cells, 72 more are waiting to get booked. With no beds left, they'll eat and sleep on benches in the processing area until a one frees up.

But is a bogged down justice system putting a simple solution out of reach?

Jail Cheif Paul Cunningham shakes his head. He could free up dozens of beds immediately with no risk to public safety, but his hands are tied by judges' orders.

About 150 inmates sentenced to jail are doing time simply to pay off fines for minor offenses, mainly for traffic violations. For every day they serve, that inmate gets a $15 credit toward their fine, but it costs taxpayers almost five-times that much to keep them behind bars.

Paul Cunningham, Salt Lake County Jail: "It costs $71 a day to house these people here in order to collect no money, because you don't really collect any money. We're crediting their sentence $15 a day at a cost of $71dollars a day. The math doesn't make sense."

At a credit of 15-dollar a day, it takes an inmate 66-days to make good on a thousand dollar fine. But those same 66 days cost taxpayers nearly $4700 dollars to feed, cloth, and secure that inmate.

Mark Jerman, Utah Taxpayers Assoc.: “It certainly seems like we can use our tax money a lot better than we are right now.”

We brought it to the attention of the Utah Taxpayers Association and they were surprised, particularly because there may be some easy solutions. One idea -- work off the fines instead of waiting behind bars.

Mike Jerman: "If they know they're going to be out here in the summer months painting curbs or picking up litter, I think most people would rather pay the fine than do that."

And tonight the sheriff is forced to take drastic measures to free up just 20-beds. As of tonight, any woman who commits what's considered a class A misdemeanor or less won't do jail time immediately after her arrest. New restrictions on men are also in the works.

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