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Editorial: Pretrial release program could trim jail costs

Editorial Board • Nov 16, 2019 at 3:30 PM

Even as Sullivan County commissioners were virtually hyperventilating over a new jail and court consolidation that could cost $170 million, they were handed a means of delaying, if not escaping, those inevitable property tax increases. Rather than build more jail cells, let inmates stay home and save money in the process.

The Sullivan County Jail has been at critical mass for many years, housing significantly more inmates than it has beds. What everyone concerned knew would be the consequence of that finally came in the form of a lawsuit claiming the jail is deplorable and dangerous and that overcrowding, understaffing and failure to separate violent inmates from the population is a “lethal cocktail” in which someone could get hurt. And someone did.

Travis Bellew of Kingsport filed the suit, claiming he was assaulted by a corrections officer and that the jail conditions were a contributing factor. No question it happened; the officer was fired three days later and pleaded guilty to assault. Without a doubt, Bellew has a strong case.

That won’t make the jail less crowded or less dangerous.

To fix that, consultants propose various expansion plans with and without moving courts to Blountville. Costs run from $70 million to around $170 million, and that doesn’t include buying the property. There’s no question a larger jail is needed. But some of the pressure may have come off via a proposed pretrial release program for inmates meeting certain criteria.

These programs have been successful all over the country. Rather than keep the accused locked up until trial, they are released under a monitoring program. Everyone wins. The accused don’t have to sleep on a blanket on a concrete floor next to a toilet, as Bellew claims happened to him. They are able to stay home to take care of family or work to provide for their upkeep. And the county wins big, saving the cost of incarceration.

Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy has made a large difference in the department and has been working on this program. He told commissioners at the same meeting where the costs for a new jail were unveiled that he believes he can release 91 inmates under this program at a savings of $35 per inmate per day. Those who agree to participate are monitored through personal visits by deputies assigned that job. Participants also must submit to random drug tests and give permission for searches at any time.

The sheriff says he would need five new deputies to monitor those 91 individuals and that the deputies would cost $100,000 each, including the cost of outfitting each deputy with the tools and a vehicle. Only salaries and benefits would be recurring costs.

But the deal could be even better. Also at the commission meeting were several county judges. One of them, Criminal Court Judge James Goodwin, thinks the sheriff is conservative in his estimates. He believes up to 300 inmates could qualify. That would triple the amount of money saved to more than $2 million.

And it does something else that was certainly not lost on commissioners. Removing 300 inmates from the Sullivan County Jail brings the population closer to what the jail can handle. That would go a long way to eliminating the overcrowding and the fear of additional lawsuits. And it would buy time with the state, which is poised to take action if the county doesn’t move on a fix for the overcrowding.

Every county resource should be directed to getting this program up and running.

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