Meridian Star

July 14, 2013

Officials seek answers on prisoners’ expenses

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     The rising cost of housing and taking care of prisoners is an issue Sheriff Billy Sollie has been talking about for quite some time and now, Meridian's new mayor is  looking for answers as he prepares to work on the city's budget.

    Mayor Percy Bland was among elected officials who gathered Monday for the monthly Council of Governments meeting. It is an informal meeting of officials to keep the lines of communication open between city and county officials, and state legislators.

    In giving his report, Sollie said the jail, as usual, is full and Lauderdale County has 25 prisoners housed at the Kemper/Neshoba Regional Correctional Facility at a cost of $20 per inmate per day. It ranges daily between 20 and 30 prisoners.

    If current trends continue, Sollie said there will be about $250,000 needed during the next fiscal year to pay for Lauderdale County prisoners in Kemper County.

    "I personally think that would be a large chunk of a payback on a bond to build a larger detention facility," Sollie said. "The jail is full. We're helping out the economy of Kemper County by housing upwards to the high-20s of persons charged with felony crimes in the Kemper facility. It's going to be an interesting budget year this year for us. With the increased population in the jail you have an increased laundry supplies, cleaning supplies, toilet paper supplies, as well as food and medical care."

    Bland asked Sollie several questions about the cost related to city prisoners. The city pays the county $38 a day to house prisoners, but those are individuals jailed for misdemeanor offenses.

    Persons charged with felony crimes, Sollie said, are quickly given a preliminary hearing and arraignment in the city. After arraignment, those felony prisoners become county prisoners and are the financial responsibility of the county.

    At least 75 percent of the prisoners in the county facility were charged for crimes that occurred in the city, Sollie said.

    Of  272 inmates in the downtown facility, Sollie said on Monday,  36 of them were city misdemeanor prisoners. There were  25 prisoners in Kemper County and 25 prisoners at the Hilltop facility.

    Kemper County will take as many as 36 felony prisoners for Lauderdale County; but will not take any misdemeanor prisoners.        

    Sollie described how the system works with regard to prisoners arrested for crimes committed in the city.

    "If the city charges someone with a felony charge, they have gone into the process of doing an immediate preliminary hearing and arraignment. At that point in time, that prisoner becomes a countywide financial responsibility," Sollie said. "That preliminary hearing and arraignment are often done prior to them being brought over to the county detention facility."

    The issue led to discussion on a larger problem of how misdemeanor prisoners should be handled, especially since so many of them are repeat offenders.

    "There are so many misdemeanor prisoners that are arrested and arrested and arrested — eventually he (the judge) just puts them in jail," Sollie said. "Often times their fines are less than $500 and they will stay there for two or three weeks at $38 a day, so the city is actually losing money by sending a message."

    It's worse, Sollie said because there are so many offenders who are not scared of what judges will do and they aren't afraid of being put in jail.

    Bland asked about the use of ankle bracelet monitors, which are used to keep track of offenders without putting them in jail.

    "The city of Meridian was introduced to ankle monitoring several months ago. Initially they were using them a good bit but as a judge has said previously, some of those repeat offenders — they have the attitude, 'You can put the monitor on me, I'm not going to charge it up. What are you going to do to me? Put me in jail?" Sollie said.

    Some offenders have been known to destroy the monitors, he added.

    "It's amazing to me how a 15-year-old can take cutting torch and cut this ankle bracelet off his ankle without severely damaging themselves," Sollie said.

    Newly-elected Ward 5 Councilman Randy Hammon, whose primary agenda has been urban renewal, said crime problems are made worse by neglect of neighborhoods. Hammon said statistics show that cities that have upgraded their codes and ordinances and have stiff penalties have begun making a difference in crime.

    "After three years you reduce crime by 7 percent; and after seven years, the cities that have adopted it have reduced crime by 18 percent," Hammon said. "It takes that long to ingrain in a five or an eight or a ten-year-old, there are certain things you can do and certain things you can't do."

    Bland said he understands that some people have to be locked up, but for those who don't, he said he hopes to find a better and less expensive solution.

    "For some of these minor offenders and misdemeanors, I don't always think that the right solution is to just build more, bigger jails," Bland said. "You will always end up filling those jails."

Bland said he was looking forward to working with Sollie to find a solution.

    "Sheriff Sollie does a great job for this entire county. They help us so much inside the city," Bland said.

    Sollie discussed the cost of housing city prisoners with the Lauderdale Board of Supervisors at a work session on Thursday, prompting a question from District 2 Supervisor Wayman Newell.

    "Don't you think we need to look at cutting or either taking none of theirs where we can stay under our limit,"  Newell asked Sollie. "If we do, don't you think we need to give them a heads up now, versus Sept. 30?"

    Sollie said talks with Bland's administration should come sooner, not later.

    "I don't think we need to as we've done in the past, which is to wait until September to start talking about contracts with the city," Sollie said. "We have a history of waiting until the last moment. I certainly think that with the new administration there is going to be discussions of reducing that daily count, that daily cost."

    District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood asked Sollie what he thought of the county's current contract with the city.

    "I do know that at $38 a day, we're one of the highest in the state for housing adult prisoners.," Sollie said.