Jail numbers cause crowding, financial strain

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(Posted Aug. 4, 2017)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

The number of prisoners Madison County sends to Tri-County Regional Jail often overruns the county’s allotted space. As a result, the county is on pace to spend $250,000 in jail overage costs this year.

On July 31, the county commissioners, judges and sheriff met to discuss the financial impact, as well as overall capacity issues at the jail, which serves Madison, Champaign and Union counties and is located in Mechanicsburg.

When the jail was built 20 years ago, the member counties agreed to split capacity and costs equally. Each county gets 55 beds and pays $1.4 million toward the jail’s annual operational costs. If a county exceeds its 55-bed allotment, they are charged $45 per day per extra prisoner.

Over the last several years, overages have become common. Just recently, Madison County spent $16,245 in overage costs in May, $21,600 in June, and $30,915 in July.

Correspondingly, the jail’s capacity limits are sometimes stretched. For example, on July 31, the prisoner population count was 199. Of those prisoners, 80 were from Madison County, 84 from Union County, and 35 from Champaign County. The jail’s stated capacity is 160. Temporary beds are set up to accommodate the overflow.

According to Sheriff Jim Sabin, when the count reaches 200, the crowding causes tempers to flare among prisoners, creating a dangerous environment. The number also strains jail operations.

“And at 200, we look for alternatives” for housing the prisoners, Sabin said. That means transporting the overflow to other jails in the state, which requires more legwork for local authorities and potentially more cost as some jails charge as much as $85 per day per prisoner.

Looking for solutions, Commissioner David Dhume asked the county’s judges if they could keep in mind the costs the large number of prisoners has on the county’s budget. He noted that as state and federal funding to counties continues to go down, local governments are bearing more costs.

“We understand you have a difficult job with the people coming in front of you,” Dhume said, adding that the commissioners aren’t asking the judges to change their sentencing methods, but to be aware of the financial impact to the county. “We all are feeling this whole issue.”

Eric Schooley, municipal court judge, said he sees about 100 people every Monday in his court.

“These are not people who are running stop signs,” he said. Referring to one recent sentencing day, he said he dealt with cases involving repeat impaired driving offenders, heroin addicts, and individuals committing sexual imposition against minors.

In general, Schooley said most of the people he sees don’t go to jail immediately. Where applicable, he said he tries to get arrestees into intervention or counseling programs to prevent repeat offenses, but at some point, sanctions in the form of jail are necessary.

“Protection of the citizens is our top priority,” Schooley said.

About the number of people entering the jail system, Sabin said, “The opiate epidemic is driving those numbers up sky high.” Schooley said over 60 percent of his cases involve drugs.

Additionally, recent changes in sentencing standards hamper judges’ ability to send certain drug offenders to state or federal prison, Sabin said, leaving local jails as the only option for incarceration.

The solution to the overall problem is more space, Schooley said.

One possibility is expansion of the tri-county jail. Sabin said the facility was built to accommodate future expansion. Leaders from each of the counties are discussing the possibility, with funding being the biggest concern, Dhume said.

Chris Brown, probate/juvenile judge, brought up the idea of Madison County building its own jail. The money the county spends now on base cost and overages at Tri-County could instead go toward such a project, he suggested.

Sabin said the cost for Madison County to build and operate its own jail would be prohibitive. He noted that Tri-County’s annual operating costs top $4 million.

“Collaboration with other counties has always been a more feasible (way of doing things),” said Commissioner Mark Forrest, adding that the partnership allows the counties to help one another during ebbs and flows.

Eamon Costello, common pleas judge, said the county would have a hard time finding funding sources to build and operate its own jail, but might have better luck finding funding to build a treatment facility with lockdown components. Such a facility would address the risk to the community and deal with the addiction issue, which is a driving factor behind much of the increased crime rate, he said.

But to have the best chance at success, the facility would have to house individuals getting over addiction for two years, Costello said. How would the cost for such a facility compare to expanding the existing jail, he asked.

“No matter what we do, we need an infusion of cash,” Dhume said, noting that the county could raise the sales tax a quarter-cent, which would bring in roughly $1 million a year. Jail needs were the impetus for the last sales tax increase, he said.

Brown suggested that the county look at its priorities for spending to make room in the budget for the current jail costs.

“We have a responsibility to protect the public and follow sentencing guidelines,” he said. “We have to make this a top priority… We need to look at other ways we are spending money in the county and curtail that.”

Dhume said the commissioners, judges and sheriff should meet periodically to continue open discussions about the jail issue.

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