06/13/11 — Bill could force county to change jail plans

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Bill could force county to change jail plans

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 13, 2011 1:46 PM

A bill working its way through the General Assembly has the potential for forcing the county to "flip" its capital improvement plan, moving a $75 million new jail to the head of the line and delaying other projects, including schools, for years, County Manager Lee Smith said.

The $75 million translates to an additional 12 cents on the tax rate, he said.

Smith recently told commissioners that Senate Bill 756 was simply state lawmakers bowing to pressure from the bail bondsmen who contend they are losing money because of the pre-trial release electronic monitoring program.

The bill has passed the Senate and its first reading in the state House where it has been referred to the Committee on Judiciary Subcommittee B. The bill would require a $1,000 secured bond in determining conditions of pre-trial release. The person would have to pay 15 percent, or $150, Smith said.

Smith said he had been calling legislators, but that they are not listening.

"They don't think it is going to have this impact -- 'Oh, anybody can come up with $150,'" he said. "They don't see the people we have coming through the jail."

If the bill becomes law, Smith said he expects the jail population would hit 325 to 350 by late summer or early fall.

"It is a mistake," Smith said. "I don't think they understand what is going to happen -- they are going to fill jails up. They are going to put us in financial devastation in all of the counties. I understand the issue of bail bondsmen, that they are in a business.

"Now I am talking about a $75 million jail requirement. Pre-trial we could add four people, add 100 to 200 machines at $4 to $10 per day versus $50 to $75 a day (to house an inmate). It is going to cost me a couple hundred thousand dollars, but I sure had rather spend $200,000 than have to spend somewhere in the neighborhood in debt service and operations of another $3 million to $3.5 million a year (for a jail)."

Smith said he had spoken with probation and Day Reporting Center officials who said the jails will be filled up because defendants will not be able to put up $150 for a bond.

"This is going to be a mess," Smith said. "And you have the state that is cutting back its jail space, which is putting more prisoners back on top of us. So you have that plus the pre-trial issue. I am telling you the 300 mark is going to be fast."

That will mean the jail could be out of compliance with state and federal regulations, he said.

"What is the worst that can happen if you are out of compliance?" Commissioner Sandra McCullen asked.

"A federal judge can tell you what kind of jail you are going to build and how much you are going to pay for it," County Attorney Borden Parker answered.

That happened recently in Johnston County, Smith said.

"The jail was, I think, $18 million more than what they wanted to spend because they didn't plan and got forced into it by a judge," he said. "We would like to be ahead of it, not behind it."

If the jail becomes overcrowded, the county might have to send the inmates elsewhere at a cost of up to $75 per day, which does not include transportation, Smith said.

"So the average cost may be has high a $90 per inmate a day," he said. "We cannot afford that. We have tried to tell legislators, but across the state they are just not listening. We are doing Qualified School Construction Bonds for schools this year, which we are working on. We have talked about some other schools. We had kind of flipped the capital plan and said we would try to look at couple of county projects and schools and then the jail.

"I think you are going to see that flip and now you are going to see this (ongoing schools projects), then the jail and those other things 15 years out. It is going to be a mess. We have got to gear up quickly and you don't any choice but to face it."

All the county can do is hope they change this law and gives the county at least a couple of years to prove the Day Reporting Center and these electronic monitoring programs are working, he said.

"We know in several counties in the state where they work," he said. "They work in other states. The pre-trial release of nonviolent criminals it works and it is a lot cheaper. You are saving 50, 60 bucks a day a head. Why would you not allow us to do that?"