Woodrow Burton is a "frequent flier" in the criminal-justice community.
    At 56, Burton has amassed a long history of arrests in Salt Lake County. But some of those busts have come without one thing: jail time.
    In a three-year span, Burton was nabbed 18 times, hauled to the county jail and released without ever spending a minute behind bars.
    He isn't the only one who has had a hard time getting a bed at the jail. The lockup has turned away 10,167 other arrestees, according to a Salt Lake Tribune review of jail records between April 2005 and April 2008.
Catch and release

    In April, the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office gave The Salt Lake Tribune data from its jail computer system. The Tribune's analysis found:
    * More than 10,000 offenders were arrested, taken to jail and released - without spending any time behind bars - from April 2005 to April 2008.
    * At least 2,396 were arrested and released more than once during those three years.
    * One arrestee was booked and then released 31 times in the three years.
    * Those most often arrested and turned away appear to share a history of homelessness and substance abuse.
   

    Meanwhile, bunk space inside the jail has grown so cramped that the Sheriff's Office absolved the sentences last weekend of 14 inmates, including some class A misdemeanor offenders, to relieve the overcrowding pressure.
    That release could have profound policy implications at the County Council, which will weigh Tuesday whether to reopen the minimum- to medium-security Oxbow jail.
    "We are at a critical threshold," Democratic Mayor Peter Corroon said. "It is time that we prepare Oxbow to be reopened."
    The squeeze on jail space has troubled the county for years. But Sheriff Jim Winder said the problem has intensified, spurring early releases like the ones last week.
    The county's population continues to climb. And crime has shot up with it.
    "We are on the uphill portion of a trend," Winder said. "If people think we're [only] keeping people who peed on a sidewalk, we ain't."
    According to booking data, the county's most commonly arrested people often wrangle with homelessness or substance-abuse issues. That goes for Burton, who has a slew of arrests for trespassing and public intoxication.
    Oxbow could help rehabilitate people like him, Winder said. The facility would specialize in providing treatment and social programs to inmates with substance and behavioral issues.
    The result: more bed space in the county's primary lockup - the Adult Detention Center - for other offenders.
   
    The missing jail
    South Salt Lake's now-mothballed Oxbow jail shut down in 2000 after the county built a much larger and more secure facility nearby. With room for 2,000 wrongdoers, the Adult Detention Center became the county's only jail.
    Oxbow has languished ever since - sometimes used for SWAT training, other times as a laundry - but it's been years since inmates bunked there.

    Winder rallied unsuccessfully for the jail's reopening last year. Officials swallowed hard upon hearing the $5.9 million price tag.
    The Democratic sheriff then pushed for less funding for fix-up costs, just in case it needed to reopen. Corroon and fellow Democrats supported it. But again, Winder's proposal failed when council Republicans rejected the measure in a 5-4 party-line vote.
    Within months, the county was bargaining behind closed doors with state legislators to sell Oxbow. Ultimately, the parties couldn't cinch a deal.
    So the question comes again: What to do with Oxbow? It's a query that seems particularly pressing this year with violent crime climbing in the state's most populous county.
    "I don't think we know if this is a two-week problem or a two-year problem," GOP County Councilman Mark Crockett said. "Is it a summer spike? Or is this more? To the extent that we need secured beds to keep scary people off the streets, Oxbow is probably the next choice."
    But will council members sink money into more beds? Or will they consider it a seasonal surge? That's a debate for Tuesday.
    Until then, county leaders will weigh an e-mail from jail chief Rollin Cook, in which he warned that the population pinch is uncommonly severe. The jail freed inmates three times last summer; they all faced class B and C misdemeanors.
    "These early releases should concern us all a great deal," Cook wrote, noting that bookings jumped 10 percent in June and 2 percent in July, when compared with last year.
    But the council wants numbers. Republican David Wilde said he might consider reopening Oxbow if the data demonstrate that the detention center "can't keep dangerous people off the street."
    Democrats haven't strayed from their position last year - when they supported fix-up funding for the jail. Democratic Councilman Joe Hatch said he can rally his colleagues behind that request again. He just needs one Republican on the nine-member council to make a majority.
   
    Maelstrom of misdeeds
    The jail debate comes amid an upturn in violent crime across the Salt Lake Valley.
    The Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification reports a 10.8 percent spurt in the county's most heinous crimes - murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - for 2007. Overall crime rose nearly 3 percent.
    The same trend appeared in the county's courthouses, where criminal filings (both for misdemeanors and felonies) have swelled 13 percent to a six-year high.
    District Attorney Lohra Miller called the escalation "disturbing" and said the jammed jail has contributed to it.
    "The message you send to people when you book and release them is that the criminal-justice system is completely ineffective and that they can act without any risk of consequence," Miller said. "Look at our crime stats. Look at what is happening in our community right now. There is no question that [jail overcrowding] has a direct effect."
    Policymakers now must ask themselves: Are drug-treatment programs, ankle bracelets, day-reporting centers and other alternatives to incarceration a better use of county cash?
    Long term, those approaches might prove more cost-effective for the county and more therapeutic for the criminals, according to Daniel Medwed, a criminal-law professor at the University of Utah.
    But the county must decide whether today's jail population pinch poses an imminent public-safety threat.
    "I'm not a big fan of opening prisons for the sake of opening prisons," Medwed said. "But if the current facility is inadequate for meeting the demand, then we should increase the supply."
    Why? Because "the more people are not caught - or not punished when they are caught - undermines the value of deterrence."
   
    Closing the revolving door
    Although the numbers rotating in and out of jail are shocking, they aren't surprising to county law enforcement - or to the criminal underworld.
    "This isn't some great mystery that is being unveiled right now," Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill said. "Within the community of offenders, it is common knowledge that you are going to be booked and released."
    Not only does it encourage wrongdoers to reoffend, experts warn, but it also bogs down the courts with more missed hearings, more bench warrants and more unresolved cases. Defendants then are rearrested, rebooked and, often, re-released.
    As for Burton, he has a laundry list of about 60 pending charges or warrants from jurisdictions across the county, according to the jail. His most serious charge came from his latest arrest, on March 28. He remains in jail on charges of sexual abuse and sodomy, both punishable by up to life in prison. He won't be getting out this time unless he makes bail. The amount: $360,000.
    ncarlisle@sltrib.com
   
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jstettler@sltrib.com