Meridian Star

July 1, 2013

Jail overcrowding no surprise to supervisors

By Michael Stewart / editor@themeridianstar.com
Associated Press

MERIDIAN —     Overcrowding at the Lauderdale County Detention Facility could cost taxpayers an additional $250,000 next year.

    Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie has said on average, between 20 to 30 Lauderdale County inmates are being housed each day at the Kemper/Neshoba Regional Correctional Facility at a cost of $20 per inmate per day.

    That is an additional $400 to $600 a day cost overrun that is not included in the Lauderdale County Detention Facility budget. The annual $330,000 cost to provide healthcare to inmates is expected to increase by $9,000 next year and that figure does not include major medical expenses.

    A $40,000 pool of funds that paid for inmate treatment outside of the jail was exhausted seven weeks ago, Sollie said. With more mouths to feed, food costs are also expected to go up.

    Sollie said original plans for the jail included provisions to expand the facility. A rough estimate to build a pod that would hold between 35 to 45 inmates would be about $2 million, Sollie said, calling that option a "short-term solution."

    A better option would be to build another facility across from the jail at Fourth Street and 20th Avenue to house low-risk inmates, Sollie said.

    But given the June 17 approval of a $14 million bond issue by the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors to build a four-court basketball gym at Highland Park; fund youth recreation parks in West Lauderdale and Clarkdale; and pay for renovations at the Lauderdale County Courthouse, finding the funds to address the overcrowding situation at the jail is unlikely, Sollie said.

    Furthermore, if overcrowding at the jail persists, the state could step in.

    "The Department of Justice won't shut down Lauderdale County because they don't have enough baseball fields or basketball courts," Sollie said. "But they will shut us down if we exceed our limitations. We could've built a prefabricated, low-risk facility across the street for a lot less than $14 million."

    When the bond issue was approved, supervisors were well aware of the problems at the jail.

    As District 2 Supervisor Wayman Newell said, Sollie has repeatedly knocked on supervisors' doors, seeking help with the overcrowding situation.

    "If I was him, facing the things he has to face, I'd be knocking on everyone's door too," Newell said. "But we've been wrapped up with the bond issue."

    Newell voted against the bond issue, as did District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge. Hank Florey, District 1, Josh Todd, District 3, and Joe Norwood, District 4, cast the majority votes to approve the $14 million in bonds.

    A 3-2 vote along the same lines took place at an April 1 meeting of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors. At that meeting, Florey said, "We asked our financial consultant to come up with a figure of how much we could borrow, float a bond issue without a tax increase and they came up with this amount of money, the $14 million bond issue. That is when we started deciding on where to spend what."

    As we pointed out in an April 7 editorial, "If there was any deciding (on where to spend the money) it wasn't done in public. The issue of how to spend $14 million in taxpayer money was never broached in a board work session."

    At the April 1 meeting, Rutledge expressed concern that borrowing that much money could affect the board's future ability to pay for roadwork and other necessities.

    "To maintain the roads we need to borrow $10 million," Rutledge said. "Our bond guy told us if we borrowed $14 million with no (tax) growth, we could borrow $7 million (in 2016) without a tax increase. Our roads are in such bad shape, I don't see $7 million doing it."

    As we pointed out in the April 7 editorial, we don't have an issue with the projects on which the $14 million will be spent. Providing wholesome recreation to youths is important and conditions at the courthouse are deplorable.

    We felt then, as we do now, however, that there should have been public discussion and more deliberation on how to best spend $14 million of taxpayer money.

    Part of that discussion should have included overcrowding at the jail.

    Meanwhile, there are other ways Sollie would like to address the problem that don't include construction.

    Sollie has been speaking with justice and chancery court judges about the possibility of using house arrest and electronic monitoring ankle bracelets on deadbeat dads.

    We like the idea. For one thing, equipping offenders with ankle bracelets is less expensive than locking them up in jail. An added benefit is dead beat dads can continue to work while in the electronic monitoring program and make payments towards their children's care.

    Many states have successfully used house arrest and electronic monitoring for those convicted of less serious offenses as a means to reduce the population of overcrowded jails and prisons. If a person in the electronic monitoring program violates the terms of the program, he or she is incarcerated for the remainder of their sentence.

    As Sollie said, "As more laws are created by the Legislature and as law enforcement becomes better in enforcing those laws, we're going to have to come up with some alternatives to incarceration or build more jails."