Editorial - Maybe Sullivan County wants to be sued over jail?

Editorial Board • May 31, 2019 at 11:00 AM

Longtime Times News columnist Bruce Shine is a Kingsport attorney with a history of successfully suing Sullivan County. Shine sued the county in the 1970s for firing employees who failed to support the road commissioner’s campaign and sued the sheriff’s department for failing to pay overtime.

Shine wrote recently that in each case where constitutional rights were violated, he sought a settlement but the county refused, obligating taxpayers to costly decisions. He wrote that a recent declaration by Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy that the county is “violating constitutional rights of each prisoner every day who is incarcerated” in the county jail is another lawsuit waiting to be filed.

“The facts for a lawsuit are simple. The two facilities together are certified to house about 622 inmates. The inmate population in recent months has topped 900, and Cassidy said it will hit 1,000 this summer. While a lawsuit on behalf of inmates will take an effort by an attorney, the result is clear that a federal court will conclude, as Cassidy has stated, Sullivan County is and has daily violated the constitutional rights of its inmates,” Shine wrote.

“Of course, a lawsuit will result in legal fees and cost to Sullivan County, and the law firm which represents the inmates will be paid at anywhere from $240 to $300 an hour,” Shine wrote. “The failure of the GOP County Commission to act now, not withstanding the cost of building a new jail and legal fees for both sides, will cost the county mightily.”

“We in Sullivan County have given the county commissioners ample opportunity to build a new jail. They have refused consistently to measure up to their responsibility,” Shine wrote. That failure to act was detailed in a story where multiple commissioners said they believe something must be done to help Cassidy with the jail, but they will not consider a tax increase.

The primary objective of local government is to balance necessary public services and investments with available revenue streams. Over many years of watching it up close, we have found that those elected to manage these decisions take one of three basic approaches: an open mind, intransigence, or what we like to call the head-in-the-sand approach.

On the subject of the jail, it has been the head-in-the-sand approach whereby the commissioners do not look at the problem with the thought that if they don’t look at it, then it will simply disappear.

Commissioners, this issue is not going way. Columnist Shine hit the proverbial nail on the head with his not-so-subtle warning that a lawsuit looms if something is not done about the jail situation. Others have warned that the overcrowding is an explosive situation. Neither scenario bodes well for the commission nor the financial health of Sullivan County.

Get your heads out of the sand and face this problem head on. Or give up your seats to people who have the intestinal fortitude to act. Right now the inaction is a collective gross dereliction of duty for the Sullivan County Commission as a governing entity.

Harsh words? Yes. It’s that serious.

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