Madison County judges, commissioners and the sheriff met together this week to discuss an issue that seems to have no good solution: How to stem the tide of a rising jail population.
The hour-long conversation between law enforcement officials and county leaders focused on one main conundrum — the population of jails rising while the county’s income to manage them and housing is limited.
Sheriff Jim Sabin explained the situation stemming from the Tri-County Regional Jail.
Decades ago, Champaign, Madison, and Union counties joined together to build the facility who then shared the costs of running.
According to Sabin, originally there were 55 beds allotted for each of the three counties for arrestees and certain lower-tier prisoners ineligible for prison. The jail itself is rated for 160 prisoners by the Ohio Department of Corrections.
Today that prison population is at 199 with 80 from Madison, 84 from Union and 35 from Champaign counties. Sabin said Union saw a spike due to a recent drug bust where 16 people were arrested.
“Over the years, we’ve seen ebbs and tides in prison population,” said Sabin. “We’ve housed prisoners in other jail facilities over the years. Mercer County is a relative new jail, that’s been used when necessary, because their per diem is also $45 a day, which is considerably more affordable than the vast majority of other jails in the state.”
While beneficial in terms of savings, Sabin said using Mercer County causes logistical issues in terms of screening and visitation burdens.
Commissioner David Dhume’s concerns were more budgetary.
“We’ve got overages that will amount to somewhere around $250,000 by the end of the year if we keep going at the rate we’re going and that’s above and beyond the $1.4 million [allotted] for our jail,” he said. “That’s our dilemma in a nutshell.”
Commissioner Mark Forrest said the county was close to almost 20 percent of its annual budget for the jail just on housing, not counting Mercer County or overages.
Dhume noted certain cuts the state was making toward county and municipal governments, such as the end to a tax on Medicaid services, saying it’s been estimated the cuts would zap 7 to 8 percent of the county’s budget.
He also added he wasn’t asking for the county’s judges to change their ways but to merely understand the expense and ripples the justice system has on the county’s budget.
Rise in crime and government meddling
Judge Eric Schooley, who presides over the county’s municipal court, said he felt it was likely that cases were going to increase due to a plethora of reasons increasing jail use and that other options had to be sought.
As an example of his burden, Schooley said that Monday, he saw at least 75 people before the meeting started at noon.
“That’s actually pretty light for this point in the day,” he said. “On a given day on a Monday, I’ll see 100 people.”
He mentioned some of his cases are repeat offenders who need punishment, particularly OVI offenses or restraining orders.
In other cases, he ends up having to send people to jail because of unintended consequences from state meddling with sentencing guidelines.
“[With, for example] driving under a suspended license there’s a big push to make those unclassified misdemeanors, no jail, because someone didn’t want to pay to get them an attorney to start with,” he said. “If it’s a jailable offense, they have to pay for a court appointed attorney.”
Schooley said that the knowledge of the attorney usually helps them figure out how to get their privileges back, keeping them out of jail anyway, as many end up continuing to drive while suspended until they are sent to jail.
Costello also noted other actions by the state government that could balloon jails.
One version of Ohio’s budget bill this year included a provision that would change how non-violent and non-sexual fifth-degree felonies are sentenced. Essentially, it would further transfer incarceration costs from the state level to the county level by only allowing them to be put on probation or sent to jail for a short time.
Costello said that probation was rarely enough for such sentences, some of which are drug trafficking charges, but wouldn’t want to send them to Tri-County due to crowding.
So, he testified against this measure back in June. Some things in the bill had changed since then.
“Perhaps the more practical impact to Madison County and pretty much all rural counties is they came up with a hybrid, only the 10 most populous counties [have to go with the original provision]. The remaining 78 have a standing invitation to go to the T-CAP (Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison) program,” he said.
Essentially, it offers grants to judges who pledge to go with the provision despite not being required to.
While the money would be helpful, Costello likened it to a “Faustian Bargain,” citing the example of a neighboring judge from a nearby county who took T-CAP’s money.
He said that one nearby community corrections facility had inmates planning an escape but could not transfer them to jail due to their fifth degree felony charges.
“In order to take the money if you have to promise not to send him to prison. Now you have a guy who’s basically throwing the bird at you and you’re powerless to do anything against it.”
“It’s time to look for alternatives,” said Schooley. “My concern is the ability for the county law enforcement having a place to jail someone they arrest. Either way you’re going to have to come up with more space or build a bigger facility.”
Judge Christopher Brown concurred, arguing courts and law enforcement should be the government’s priority.
“We have to adapt with the times,” he said. “This problem isn’t going to go away. I think we’re all in agreement that it’s going to get worse. So what do we do about it? Has anyone given thought to building our own facility and getting out of Tri-County?”
Dhume said he thinks in the next 20 years they’d likely fill that jail.
“It’s worth a look,” said Forrest. “When there was a plan 20 years ago, who thought this is where we would be today? And it’s getting worse every day. You have to look at both sides, expanding [Tri-County] or going by yourself.”
Dhume said it hasn’t been looked at ever due to commitments such as Tri-County Regional Jail, so options would need to be researched.
Costello said perhaps making it a specialized lockdown facility focusing on two years of recovery would be a good option.
“Maybe there’s some other pot [of funds], whether it’s a federal or state pot to assist us in this regard [to build such a facility],” he said.
Costello noted the lockdown nature might actually generate successful recovery stories as it would help prevent relapses, adding that many relapse within six months.
Schooley said that treatment facilities may be the only way to get outside money, but added the county couldn’t go half way in maintaining such a facility. It would need to be a treatment facility under lockdown, with professionals that can help people recover over years.
Dhume was still concerned with the cost.
“Whatever we’re talking about, whether it’s expansion of jails or building a new facility, whether it be a jail facility or a treatment facility or both, we’re going to need another infusion of cash in the county,” he said. “We have that ability, we have one quarter sales tax left available to us.”
Dhume said that such an increase could add $1 million to the county but would require vocal support from the community.
They also discussed renegotiating the rates for using Tri-County. Sabin said that being a member of the jail’s owner’s consortium actually saves on actual costs, as the $45 per day charge is actually cheaper than the real rate of housing an inmate, which is closer to $60.
He did say Tri-County could be expanded without causing too many hiccups operationally.
The group agreed to meet again to further discuss the issue.
“We are absolutely a law and order county. I get that our main purpose is to fund law enforcement and the courts and make sure we’re working together on this,” he said. “We made a commitment. We’ll keep that commitment. We just want to emphasize the cost.”
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, or on Twitter @msfkwiat.