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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Officials search for key to free up packed jails

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Lenawee County has turned a recreational center into a dormitory for female inmates. While funds have been allocated for a new jail, experts say it won't fix the problem. Lenawee County has turned a recreational center into a dormitory for female inmates. While funds have been allocated for a new jail, experts say it won't fix the problem.
LSIA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

Some county jails are releasing inmates days, even weeks early. Others are lining recreational and educational rooms with cots. A few are paying other jails to house their inmates.

Whether cramming more people into less space or making more space with fewer people, officials nationwide are working on temporary fixes to the overcrowded-jail problem.

“To me it's almost inhumane. You don't want to treat people like cattle or animals. You want to give them their own space,” Lenawee County Sheriff Larry Richardson said. “But we're not doing that. We can't do that.”

In Lenawee County, where the jail routinely houses about 200 inmates a day - well over the 156 inmates it was designed for - the sheriff frequently releases prisoners early and has fashioned a recreational area into a women's dormitory.

In Wood County's 13-year-old jail, officials alleviate crowded cells by farming inmates to jails in Van Wert and Crawford counties. And in Lucas County, only violent offenders who have not yet been to trial are held in the county's lockup. All others are released on bond or sent to a regional jail in Stryker.

“Our solution has always been in the past, build a new jail, add more beds. You can build until the cows come home but most likely you won't build yourself out of a problem,” the correctional program specialist said.

Before Sheriff Richardson took over Lenawee County's antiquated jail in January, 2001, he knew it was overcrowded. Built in 1953 and later renovated, the jail averages 200 inmates, and judges are often asked to approve early releases.

Programs such as substance abuse counseling and domestic-related therapy were canceled long ago as educational space was taken to make room for more cots.

The sheriff of the southeastern Michigan county has recommended a minimum-security, pole-barn structure, an electronic tethering system, and a private facility to be leased to the county. A local attorney began a 100-bed work-release facility to give judges options. The county has asked voters three times for money to build a facility and been given a solid “no” each time.

Under the threat of a state takeover, county commissioners have set aside money to build a new jail. Construction began this summer and it is slated to be completed in October, 2004.

But the $7.5-million, 300-bed facility won't be the end to Lenawee's problems, experts said.

Locally, communities, such as Hillsdale County and Erie County, have resorted to early releases. The regional jail in Stryker - Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio - has refused new inmates from those counties that have exceeded their limits, executive director Jim Dennis said.

Under CCNO policy, Mr. Dennis can declare an emergency and limit admissions whenever capacity remains at 95 percent or above for three straight days. Last year that happened three times.

The regional facility, which houses inmates for Lucas, Henry, Defiance, Williams, and Fulton counties, as well as Toledo, had a recent count of 567 inmates, or about 88 percent of its total capacity of 642 - likely a reflection of several judges being on vacation, Mr. Dennis said.

Ken Kerle of the American Jail Association said one of the causes of overcrowding is that officials have locked up a lot of people who would be better served in educational or treatment programs. In Ohio, he said, the situation is particularly critical because there are some inmates waiting to be put in jail.

That trend began, Mr. Kerle said, during Bill Clinton's presidency, when the state, federal, and jail population grew by 673,000 from 1993 to 2001, according to justice department statistics. As part of his “tough-on-crime” legislation, the former president offered money to build more correctional facilities to those communities that enacted tougher crime and sentencing laws, Mr. Kerle said.

Instead, communities should have been creating more treatment programs and mental health facilities, he said.

“You've got to measure what it costs to keep these people incarcerated for 10 years as opposed to what it costs to provide programs in the jails. You've got to nip this problem in the bud,” he said. “The crowding problem got out of hand because of the idea that those people who are arrested need to be in jail.”

In some counties, officials find that despite alternative programs and cooperation within the legal system, there are too many violent and repeat offenders who still have to be locked up. Lucas County routinely uses its booking area for more than the few-hour stays it was designed for and crowds as many as 550 people into the whole facility, which has the capacity of 419.

Corrections Administrator Rick Keller said programming wouldn't open up space in his jail, which has been overcrowded for two decades. In the Toledo jail, which housed about 485 inmates last week, only more room will curb the problem.

“The size of your jail depends on who you want to hold in it,” Mr. Keller said. “Right now in this county, because of federal court orders and several early release mechanisms, we're holding primarily pretrial, violent felons.”

The county is looking into the construction of a jail and has dedicated $500,000 toward the planning of a new jail or renovation to the old one.

Chief Deputy Mark Hummer of the Wood County Sheriff's Office said while the justice center there was built with additions in mind, the county doesn't have the funds for renovations. Instead, the county is paying jails in nearby counties to house those inmates who have been sentenced to short-term stays.

The jail, which has space for 143 inmates, had to farm out as many 27 offenders to other counties at a cost of either $45 or $55 per inmate, per day. This week, officials were able to bring all inmates from other facilities back to Wood County, the deputy said.

To date, the county has spent nearly $20,000 to send their prisoners elsewhere, Deputy Hummer said. The sheriff's annual budget is about $6 million, of which about half is dedicated to the justice center.

The deputy added that although it is up to the judge what sort of jail time an offender receives, the department is dedicated to putting those who violate the laws behind bars.

“In Wood County, if you break the law, we'll make room for you,” he said. “It may not be here, it may be somewhere else, but we'll find the room.”



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