By Mike Gorrell
The Salt Lake County Council is looking to define more precisely what it wants to do this year to advance criminal-justice reform — its stated goal in extending an expiring tax and bypassing the chance to return $9.4 million a year to county taxpayers.
Council members will hold a retreat Tuesday and Wednesday to review the mounting issues confronting the jail and the judicial system, the potential solutions available and the associated price tags.
They're entering the sessions having heard Mayor Ben McAdams' all-out pitch for a "Pay for Success" approach that he believes is the best means of getting the kind of results the county wants at the most reasonable price.
For nearly three hours last week, the mayor and his staff endeavored to convince the County Council that a Pay for Success approach could be used to pay two longtime service providers — First Step House and The Road Home — to develop and implement programs to deal with, respectively, jail recidivism and homelessness.
Under Pay for Success, the county would solicit funding from banks and philanthropic nonprofits to initiate those programs. Then, if the programs meet goals established contractually upfront, the county would repay the investors from future collections of the extended jail tax.
The beauty of Pay for Success, McAdams argues, is that it eliminates risk for the county if the programs fail to live up to expectations.
"You buy your service from a provider who guarantees that if you're not satisfied, you can return it and not pay. Instead of me having to learn about the product I'm buying, I can buy things off the shelf and know that if I'm not satisfied, I can return it," the Democratic mayor told the Republican-majority council, several of whose members have expressed skepticism about the relatively untested concept.
Outgoing Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove has been the most vocal.
"I still have concerns about the viability of the model. Should the taxpayers of Salt Lake County be leading out on this experiment?" he asked. "I'm concerned with government pouring more money down the rat hole."
Responded McAdams: "That's why I think you should be supportive. … Pay for Success is powerful because of risk shifting. The risk is best borne by people who can influence the outcome."
That would primarily be the investors, he said, although the service providers also have an incentive to be creative and efficient so they can maintain and even enhance their reputations.
County Chief Financial Officer Darrin Casper said it appears the banking community will be inclined to get involved.
"They're not going to get rich on this," he said, citing a review of returns received by banks that invested in Pay for Success projects elsewhere that earned repayments.
But participation in a program could enable the banks to comply more easily with the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which encourages financial institutions to extend credit to low- and middle-income borrowers in the neighborhoods where they operate.
"The opportunity for lending here [in Salt Lake County] is not as much as [the banks] need to satisfy regulators," added Fraser Nelson, the county's director of data and innovation. "We're working with federal regulators to make sure they can comply."
She also noted that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is helping to push legislation that will make it easier to launch Pay for Success projects.
McAdams originally suggested three Pay for Success undertakings. But he dropped a plan to work on promoting good maternal care, not because he doesn't believe it is important long term, but because he was convinced it did not have the same immediate impacts on jail-bed numbers as reducing recidivism and homelessness.
Both of those projects target a population that comes and goes from the county jail with regularity.
First Step House, a nonprofit that has operated since 1958, would target adult males with substance-abuse disorders — many with concurrent mental-health problems — who are at great risk to return to jail.
Deputy County Mayor Lori Bays said this group historically averages about 2.8 arrests and spent 369 days in jail over a three-year period.
Among the population The Road Home would be dealing with, she added, nearly 30 percent were booked into jail this past year, spending an average of three months behind bars.
Nelson projects that both programs, "if entirely successful," will cost the county $11.5 million over five years. "That's far less expensive than doing nothing," she added, noting that what constitutes success will be evaluated in a data-driven way by Rob Butters, director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah.
McAdams hopes this detailed presentation will persuade the council this week to embrace Pay for Success and begin the lengthy process of modernizing and humanizing the system.
"Criminal-justice reform doesn't happen in two days," he acknowledged. "We don't know what that reform will look like to take us to where we want to be. These are not going to be successful the first time around. We'll adapt. That learning process is how we'll reform criminal justice."