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Editorial: Sullivan takes good first step in solving jail issue

Editorial Board • Dec 7, 2019 at 6:30 PM

It will take some months to set up, but the Sullivan County Commission took a large step in relieving county jail overcrowding by funding a program to monitor inmates awaiting trial on home release. It also seems likely that pressure from the law enforcement and judicial communities will prompt the state next year to increase the capabilities of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to process evidence, another factor keeping inmates locked up awaiting trial.

These initiatives could drop the average census at the Sullivan County Jail by a third or more, even bringing it into compliance, at least in terms of available beds.

But that won’t let the county off the hook for an expanded or new jail.

Most lawmakers would rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than raise taxes, but Sullivan County needs a new jail, and any delays in laying the first block will only increase the cost.

The jail has around 650 beds, and this year the average population level broke 1,000. It will continue to grow. That doesn’t just mean hundreds of inmates sleeping on the floor. It impacts the ability to feed them. It means that showers and other services are over capacity, that inmates are crowded into non-cell space for exercise, that fights and gang activity are increased, that guards are at greater risk of injury. It makes it impossible to separate violent and non-violent offenders.

A class-action lawsuit over these conditions has been filed. More prisoners joining in the suit would not be a surprise. But the county jail is a powder keg, and if someone gets killed because of these conditions, who knows what that cost could be. Bottom line, the county’s jail facilities are outdated and disgusting and must be replaced, even if beds are not exceeded.

Kudos to Sheriff Jeff Cassidy in convincing commissioners to fund his plan to hire 10 new deputies in a pretrial release program to move nonviolent inmates awaiting trial out of the jail and into their homes. The new officers will be trained and dedicated to monitor inmates granted approval for participation in the program.

The cost is $817,000 to get the program up and running for the rest of this budget year, money that will come from the county’s fund balance. Cassidy estimates $564,800 annually in recurring costs beginning July 1. That’s about two cents on the county’s property tax rate, but much of that cost is offset by not having to house and feed inmates and in reducing the county’s potential liability for overcrowding.

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