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Jail capacity drops, leaving fewer beds for local offenders

If county approves sheriff and DA recommendations, Columbia County Jail will go down to 25 local beds


by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The Columbia County Jail was built to house 255 inmates, but currently only has a funded capacity of 150. If a recent recommendation is approved, that number will go down again to 110 beds, with only 25 beds available to local offenders.Columbia County Jail today can house 65 local inmates. Beginning July 1, that number could go down to 25.

At present, jail officials release lower-level offenders when the jail reaches a predetermined capacity, which has been reduced due to budget restrictions.

The funding and expense dilemma has again forced county and jail budget officials to place an operational levy out to voters. It is expected to appear on the November ballot.

Last year, officials force-released more than 500 inmates and are already on pace to force release an estimated 700 inmates this year, said Sheriff Jeff Dickerson.

If the recommendation to reduce local beds is passed, he said, “We will still hold the worst offenders, just fewer of them.”

Dickerson, Columbia County District Attorney Stephen Atchison and County Counsel Sarah Hanson met with the county commissioners June 5 to make a formal recommendation to reduce the number of beds available to local offenders. If the commissioners follow this recommendation, the 255-bed facility’s total capacity would drop from 150 funded beds to 110 beds, with 85 beds still reserved for federal prisoners.

The federal money that pays for these beds is what really helps to keep the jail open, Dickerson said.

This year, Dickerson needed to cut more than $400,000 out of next year’s operating budget. First, he cut the remaining staff they could cut and still maintain the jail.

“What was left was jail beds,” Dickerson said.

The implications of the reduction go far beyond the jail itself, from shorter jail sentences handed down by judges to who deputies and police officers arrest and why.

“We have instructed our remaining enforcement staff to be extra cautious about arresting people whom they know will be matrixed [force-released] out before they get finished with their reports,” Dickerson said, adding that as far as city police departments are concerned, how they decide to handle arrests is up to them.

“We will not discourage them, but will operate the facility the same as ever,” Dickerson said. “Whoever is brought in to be booked, will be booked into the facility — we just don’t know how long we will be able to keep them. Nothing will change in that regard.”

In light of the jail’s predicament, a jail operations levy is in the works for the November ballot. Such levies have failed in the past.

County Commissioner Henry Heilmuller believes this is because other budgetary needs, such as additional patrol vehicles or patrol deputies, have been tacked on. The current levy, however, will be purely an operations levy for the jail, he said.

“This levy would not solve our funding crisis in other aspects of what we do,” Dickerson said, listing patrol, court security, concealed handgun licensing, search and rescue and dog control among other duties. “Neither will it solve the funding crisis for the rest of the county’s departments... what it will do is keep our local jail open and provide some detention capability beyond where we are and where we will be beginning next month.”