From the Sheriff: The Cost of Incarceration

Jails serve both as the community’s last resort for solving public safety dilemmas and as a critical piece to the overall criminal justice program in every county.

Whether or not we are forced to close our jail by this summer, I think it is important for the community to understand the purposes for incarceration and  the reason why it costs as much as it does to run a local corrections facility.

First, the reasons for incarceration are several. Many people see the jail as a place where we send local citizens convicted of crimes that do not merit a prison sentence, and, while that is true, there are a number of other reasons that have just as great of an impact on the overall livability of a community. Jails perform the vital criminal justice function of booking those accused of crimes—from murder to drug dealing, from rape to burglary, and from child abuse to domestic violence and other assaults on vulnerable victims—and then holding those so charged either until they can get before a judge to be arraigned (and held until trial if the charge is severe enough) or released with a date to appear in court.

Jails, then, also become the resting spots for those who fail to appear in court when they are supposed to and where they can be held until the judge sees them.

Police officers  and sheriff’s deputies use the jail to solve immediate public safety problems caused by individuals who are impaired by alcohol, drugs, rage or a combination thereof.  Hundreds of people in our county every year commit crimes for which a long-term stay in jail is not necessary,  but, due to their current criminal behavior, need a place to be held until they bail out or see a judge, come down from their inebriation, and realize there is a consequence for disturbing the peacefulness of our community.

Local Community Corrections officials depend on the jail as a consequence for their clients who have been committed to them from the state prisons.  They use the jail as a sanction against those on probation and parole who fail to comply with the terms of their early release from prison.

The courts depend on the jail as a last resort for those who fail to comply with the probation the courts often give in lieu of custody, and attorneys rely on the jail as a place where they can find and interview those they are representing on a wide variety of criminal charges.

Because of our short-staffed situation, we have been forced to release many inmates earlier than we wished these last few years, but we’ve still been able to provide a facility for local law enforcement to take criminal offenders off the streets for at least some period of time—and that can make all the difference for a home shattered by domestic violence, or  a police officer needing to find a place to take someone who is acting out violently.

It costs a considerable amount of money to provide these services to the community.  Our jail has between 4 and 5 mandatory staffing posts (plus adequate supervision for staff) that is needed for three shifts a day to make sure this custody facility is run efficiently and effectively, and according to the rulings of the courts that protect the rights of prisoners. That staffing level is basically true, no matter how many local or federal prisoners we have in custody.

Lack of adequate staff can lead to many problems affecting the safety, security and Constitutionality of the jail’s operations.  Cutting corners because we lack the proper staffing can lead to the kind of  problems we’ve seen lately in our jail with employee burnout and lawsuits for failure to uphold inmates’ rights. Many of the lawsuits are frivolous, but one was found by a federal judge last year to have some merit.

This is why we are in the predicament we face today with the closure of our jail. We have tried to hold on long enough to give voters the final say on whether we stay open or not.  After the vote last November, I and my staff have been preparing to close the jail and move as many prisoners as our budget will allow to Polk County, thanks to an agreement we now have with Sheriff Wolfe and the Polk County Board of Commissioners.  The current levy campaign is a citizen effort to forestall the direction in which we are rapidly moving.

No matter the outcome of the vote, the Office of Sheriff will still be here, and we will still work our hardest to keep the most serious offenders off the streets.  But please be aware that most of the functions listed in this article will have come to an end in our County until such time that the operations of a local facility can be re-authorized.