05/04/11 — Commissioners concerned about potential inmate surge

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Commissioners concerned about potential inmate surge

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 4, 2011 1:46 PM

Two pieces of proposed state legislation that could swell the county's jail population continue to cause consternation for Wayne County officials.

A bill that would require the county to house inmates with sentences up to six months on misdemeanor charges has troubled county commissioners for months. It has been further complicated by Senate Bill 756 that would eliminate the pre-trial electronic monitoring.

"That is insanity," County Manager Lee Smith told commissioners at their Tuesday morning session. "They are telling us we can't have a pre-release electronic monitoring program? You have got to be kidding me. They just want to fill up jails. That makes no sense. I am asking for a motion to oppose Senate Bill 756 because this absolutely ties the hands of every county in this state where you can't do pre-trial release and electronic monitoring and use your funds.

"You are talking about us not even being able to run the program that we are already running. We would have to shut our program down. That doesn't even make any sense."

Commissioner John Bell said what is so strange about the bill is that the sponsor is a retired probation officer and county commissioner who should know what is going on at the local level.

"It would increase your jail population tremendously," County Attorney Borden Parker said.

Commissioner Sandra McCullen's motion to send a letter opposing the bill was unanimously approved.

Smith said county officials are in almost daily communications with the local state legislative delegation, something that is "good, but scary, too."

"One big issue for us is the issue of misdemeanants being transferred to us," Smith said. "Those misdemeanants being sentenced to 12 months or less were originally to come to local jails. Now it is six months or less. With those six months, I could be looking at a potential number of 700 to 900 inmates back in my local facility. We couldn't handle those.

"You could say send them to other counties. The problem is it is all 100 counties. We are going to have a problem. In looking how to resolve that, we are going to be bringing to you in our budget, expansion of our Day Reporting Center and electronic monitoring programs."

Adding inmates also will translate into more food and medical cost, he said. However, those costs could be somewhat offset by expansion of the electronic monitoring program, he said.

Smith said the county is looking for other options, too.

Sheriff Carey Winders has come up with an idea that the county will pursue, he said.

"The thing that Carey has come up with is asking our legislators to urge the Division of Facility Services to reduce the square footage requirement per inmate," Smith said. "That is a great idea because our standards exceed the federal standards.

"If we just come down to just the federal standards, we could add 150 inmates in our existing facility. That would save the state and the county billions of dollars in construction and operational costs across this state.

"But at least I would have room. It would give use some breathing room for years. It would help the Greene counties that just built a jail and all of a sudden they have almost doubled their capacity. That is a great thing."

Smith said he had spoken with officials at the Division of Facility Services who had some understandable hesitancy about the idea.

He said he also has sent information about the square footage reduction to legislators and to other county managers as well. Winders is seeking support from others sheriffs for the change, Smith said.

Commissioner Bud Gray asked Smith how that would affect jail beds.

"Now on beds, we have some of our inmate units where we have two single beds," Smith said. "What we would be able to do by changing the square footage is to put in two bunks. So we would sleep instead of two, four.

"One of the options that was brought up by a legislator would add to your operation cost horrible is kind of like doing like the military and where you actually swap sleeping quarters. What you do is sleep in shifts. That is a bear to monitor because you would have to move inmates and give them the ability to sleep while you then have a day area. You can't do that. It is not going to work. We need to change the square footage."

Smith said some legislators had told him they didn't think they could do it this time.

"They have got to do it," he said.

The division is set by bureaucracy and policy so that the change could be done by administration without any additional legislation, he said.

Smith said he thinks that legislators could put enough pressure on the division to force the change.

Bell said he doesn't understand the law.

"The state already has the facilities and it is not going to save the state that much money by shifting them back down to the counties," he said. "I do not understand the rationale behind it."

Commissioner Andy Anderson asked Smith if the state had provided an explanation.

"We get no other explanation other than this is what we are going to do," Smith said. "It was brought forth by a legislator who thinks that it is a great idea. I can't figure out why."