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Published: Thursday, 5/17/2007

County sees savings in reducing jail time

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Reducing the time that inmates sentenced to state prison spend in the overcrowded jail would save county funds. Reducing the time that inmates sentenced to state prison spend in the overcrowded jail would save county funds.
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The Lucas County commissioners have a goal of creating a more efficient criminal justice system that would make an overcrowded county jail safer and less expensive to operate.

And today they plan to announce they have the support of the necessary agencies to achieve their goal.

County Administrator Mike Beazley said the commissioners hope to save more than 20,000 bed nights in the jail next year for the estimated 1,100 people who are sentenced to state prison in Lucas County Common Pleas Court . They want to do so by accelerating the criminal justice process.

To accomplish that, Mr. Beazley said county Prosecutor Julia Bates, the county Clerk of the Courts J. Bernie Quilter, the county Common Pleas Court judges, and county Sheriff James Telb have pledged to make the arraignment, trial, and prisoner transportation processes more efficient.

A news conference to announce those plans is scheduled for 2 p.m. today at the Lucas County Courthouse.

The commissioners don't have the legal authority to mandate their desired changes, and recognize their goal could not be met without help from judicial system officials.

Mr. Beazley said as many as 8,000 bed nights a year can be trimmed immediately through Mr. Quilter's work to shorten the time a prisoner spends at the county jail after being sentenced to a state prison.

The commissioners hope the judges can cut 12,000 bed nights a year by speeding up how long it takes to try, convict, and sentence a prisoner. They think an additional 1,000 nights can be saved by shortening the amount of time between a prisoner's arrest and arraignment.

According to a recent report completed by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the county jail has an average prisoner count of 493, yet is equipped to house only 374 inmates.

The commissioners and their judicial system counterparts believe a less crowded jail could limit violence and sickness inside its walls and save the county money in personnel and operational costs.

"This is important work, good work," Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the commissioners, said. "We all knew the justice system could improve in areas, and we're all working to be more efficient."

Other participating officials all agree the county's criminal justice system could be more efficient but don't necessarily feel the commissioners' goal of eliminating over 20,000 bed nights in jail is realistic.

Judge Frederick H. McDonald, administrative judge of the county's Common Pleas Court, said his judges work diligently to complete their cases in a timely manner.

Judge McDonald said of the cases involving jail inmates that were completed in March, the average length of a case was 102 days. He said the Ohio Supreme Court permits 180 days between a defendant's arraignment and sentencing hearing. The Common Pleas Court's average length of all cases completed in March was 113 days.

"If we're averaging 70 days less than the Supreme Court requires, that's pretty good," Judge McDonald said. "Can we speed it up even more? Yes, we can, but I'm not sure how significantly we can do that."

He said his fellow judges are committed to the cause and will meet with a National Center for State Courts representative this summer to examine their practices. Judge McDonald said a report on the center's findings should be available by the beginning of October.

Like the judges, Mr. Quilter said the clerk's office already has done work to lessen the amount of time prisoners spend in the county jail.

He said his office has collaborated with court bailiffs to complete and circulate a sentenced prisoner's paperwork in two to three days.

Yet, the commissioners say the average time a prisoner spends in the jail after sentencing is eight to 12 days, and want to see that number reduced to one to four days.

Mr. Quilter said getting that drastic a reduction may require an alternative practice, such as shipping an inmate to the prison he or she is sentenced to before the paperwork is completed.

Ms. Bates said the biggest obstacle the commissioners may face in reaching their goal could be defense attorneys.

The county prosecutor said a defense attorney's responsibility is to the client, and not necessarily to move the case along as quickly as possible.

"They have a different job than the rest of us do," she said.

Toledo lawyer Stephen Hartman said there are some advantages for defendants to have a quicker trial process, especially for those who sit in jail until their case is decided.

But Mr. Hartman said there are some cases, like those involving murder and rape, in which the defense attorney needs more time to prepare properly. "Quickening the process may not be practical in all cases," he said. "In theory it's a great idea, but they need to be careful not to short-circuit the defense."

Sheriff Telb said the commissioners have set their sights too high, but reducing the jail's population is still a worthy cause.

"Even if we can reduce it a little bit, it all helps," the sheriff said.

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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