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County officials seek jail strategy

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Columbia County officials met Monday night at the Columbia County Fairgrounds 4-H pavilion to discuss the future of the county's jail. The jail's budget is expected to be $600,000 short for the next fiscal year. Stakeholders in the future of the Columbia County Jail met at the 4-H Columbia County Fairgrounds pavilion Monday, Nov. 25, to work toward a strategy for the “jail in crisis.”

Mayors, commissioners, judges, and other Columbia County officials at the meeting voted to hold a series of town hall meetings throughout the county to seek community input before moving forward with a plan. The dates of those meetings are still to be set.

“This was a time for us as practitioners — or as I’ve called it, criminal justice stakeholders — to sit down and consider what this is going to mean for how we do our jobs. Once we get an idea, we’ll take it to the public and get their input,” said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson.

Columbia County voters rejected county commissioners’ local option levy to fund the jail in the Nov. 5 general election, dealing a blow to county officials’ efforts to keep operating the 255-bed facility. The rejection of the $9.57 million levy, which would have funded four years of operations at the jail and allowed the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office to increase jail capacity for local offenders, has local officials weighing options for the facility’s future.

Dickerson presented two options at the meeting for how the county can move forward with the jail: transition the jail to a local lockup operation, or close the jail completely. Both options involve seeking an agreement with another jail to send inmates out of the county.

Dickerson said the county doesn’t quite have the money for the local lockup option, but it would cost a lot less than running the jail. The local lockup option would result in the release of all but eight to 10 of the jail’s worst offenders, who would be sent to another facility outside the county. The jail would then be used to hold short-term inmates for no more than a period of 36 hours. Dickerson said the key difference between the jail and local lockup is that “you can’t sentence someone to a lockup facility.”

Dickerson said the second option, closing the jail completely and renting outside beds for the county’s eight to 10 worst offenders, is affordable with current funding. The jail’s remaining inmates, aside from United States Marshals Service holds, would be released as a result of the closure.

If the county decides to close the jail and send inmates outside the county, criminals would still have to be booked within Columbia County and picked up from their respective jails upon release, Dickerson said.

“They don’t want our criminals released in their county, and — I put myself in their place — we wouldn’t want that either,” Dickerson explained.

The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office has yet to reach an agreement with a jail outside the county to hold its inmates.

Dickerson’s presentation also outlined the jail’s rising costs and the county’s shrinking budget. According to Dickerson, the jail is short more than 14,000 staff hours to cover all jail posts, the forecasts budget for the jail is short by more than $600,000 in 2014, and jail staff are gradually leaving the force in search of job security.

“Since 2006, the jail’s share of the reductions of the county budget have resulted in a loss of over $1.2 million in general fund revenue that’s budgeted to jail operations,” Dickerson added.

After Dickerson’s presentation, stakeholders held an informal open meeting.

Jennifer Grant, presiding judge for the Columbia County Circuit Court, said the jail’s current policy to release criminals who have a low score on the jail’s matrix system has resulted in a high amount of warrants issued for failure to appear in court.

Columbia County District Attorney Steve Atchison echoed Grant’s point, saying he recently saw one case with three or four counts of “failure to appear” on the same charge. Atchison described the issue as a “snowball” since criminals seem to be aware that the county jail will not hold them.

Grant added that the increase in paperwork for “failure to appear” charges has become a waste of time.

Cheryl Young, mayor of Columbia City, expressed her disappointment with voters’ rejection of the levy, as well as the policy to cite and release offenders.

“Why are you wasting time and money and resources, putting all these people out, only to just have fun and games and let the person that has committed the crime walk off and laugh and some of them — as we’ve seen on television — will just smile at the camera and laugh and say, ‘Hi, see me?’ I think it’s ironic,” Young said.

Young continued, “The very society that wants protection from these people ... the majority of those people are the very ones that have said, ‘Do it for me, you have to do it for me,’ but then they limit the abilities by giving them all these civil rights we have to give them. I mean, the laws right now, we can’t fight them.”

Young added she is interested in fighting for legislation to reverse some of the rights jails are required to provide inmates, such as medical treatment.

Although some at the meeting were interested in campaigning harder for another jail levy, which would likely focus harder on the rural areas in the county that voted “no,” Dickerson said he personally wasn’t calling for another levy.

“The people in this county are going to have to make it a priority,” Dickerson told the Spotlight Tuesday, speaking about seeking support for another levy. “I’m not pointing a finger at them. I’m saying we haven’t made a good enough case to convince them.”

Dates for town hall meetings throughout the county on the jail’s future will be announced soon and are expected to start within the next few weeks.

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