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The Advocate and Democrat.

Time has come for plan for new jail or justice center

Published: 4:00 PM, 08/05/2008 Last updated: 12:10 PM, 04/01/2009

Author: Michael Thomason

"The day has arrived."

With that short statement Monroe County Finance Director Brian Tallent summed up the county's jail situation. 

The county has known for months, if not years, that a new jail and possibly a justice center, is needed. And after a recent jail inspection, the county now knows it needs to begin moving forward.

Monroe County Mayor Allan Watson told the Law Enforcement Committee during a meeting Monday afternoon that he expects to hear the final results of the inspection by Thursday. He believes the state will tell them they have 60 days to provide a plan of action.

"They will probably want a plan, property for the jail and a time frame in which it will be built," Watson said.

As for the inspection itself, Jail Administrator Trent Prock said it went well aside from the overcrowding of prisoners.

"We had a bulb out in an exit sign," Prock said, "but other than that, the building is in good shape."

"We've done a lot of work on the jail," Sheriff Bill Bivens said. "We've got it in good shape."

Jim Hart, who works with the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), told the committee that a jail can't be decertified for overcrowding, but it can lead to other problems.

"A recent trend, and I wouldn't want it to happen to you," he said, "is for the state inspector to see you're overcrowded and a few days later the fire marshal shows up and shuts you down."

The Monroe County Jail is built to house 138 prisoners, but averages much more than that on a daily basis. Prock said on Monday there were 172 prisoners in the jail.

Hart said concentrating on solving the overcrowding could solve a lot of problems and a Criminal Justice Committee including law enforcement, court clerks, lawyers and citizens could pinpoint and work on solutions.

"You could look into community corrections programs," he said. "And there are diversion programs, maybe even tracking bracelets. Of course, you don't want to put dangerous people out on the streets, but before you put down the first brick on a new jail or justice system, you want to cut as many costs as you can. Because to be truthful, a new jail will be overcrowded as soon as you open the doors."

Prock said the biggest problem is probation violators. "The bulk of our inmates are there because they violated their probation," he said. "We release them and they're back in a month, if not sooner."

"You need to get them through the system quicker," Hart said. "As soon as they violate their parole, find out why and see if they really deserve to go back to jail. I know judges have lots of courts to cover, but somebody doesn't need to be sitting in jail for 30 days before they find out what can be done."

The county has hired Cope Associates Inc. to do a needs assessment and the committee approved paying the company $20,000 to do the job as soon as possible.

"We have the money in the budget," Tallent said. "It's not a problem."

Hart estimated by using current growth statistics, Monroe County will be housing 235 prisoners daily by 2012 and 337 daily by 2018.

"Those are very tenuous numbers," he said, "and could fluctuate, but they will be going up."

County Commissioner Judy Lee, who sits on the committee, said she thought the current courthouse works fine. "Why move them?" she asked, referring to a justice center, which would also house court offices. "What's wrong with our courthouse?"

Watson acknowledged that the Chancery Court offices would probably stay in the current courthouse, but Criminal Court would be better served in a justice center to allow quicker and safer transportation of prisoners.

"Nobody wants to build a justice center now," he said, "or tomorrow or two years from now, but it'll have to be done and it'll take a tax increase."

Hart said it takes about 40 months to complete such a project once it is begun.

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