A column by Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson

I sympathize with the family of 1-year-old Paxton Pitts, after the woman who was convicted of assaulting him was released from jail early.

Stephanie Kral, who received a 10-day sentence from the court following her conviction for third-degree assault, represents just one of the 1,897 inmates we’ve been forced to release early since the fall of 2011 — nearly 500 of those releases have occurred since the beginning of this year.

Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO - Columbia County Sheriff Jeff DickersonThe bad news is that these forced releases have caused hundreds of inmates to serve a small percentage of their time in custody — in order to keep in custody those who pose the greatest threat to public safety.

The good news is that this situation will be changing for the better in the coming year, as we are able to build our staffing level back to the levels needed to hold more sentenced inmates for longer periods of time.

I join with those who find the current catch-and-release situation plaguing our jail to be unacceptable. We are working furiously on getting our jail back into the condition where we can hold more sentenced inmates, but I must continue to ask for the public’s patience while we rebuild our staff.

It hasn’t been that long ago that we were preparing to shutter the facility and send only the worst 10 criminals to another jail. And while the vote in May to keep the jail open has turned this direction around, there will still be many more early releases of inmates until we are able to re-staff.

We are hiring jail staff as fast as we can, but it will still be a number of months before they are trained to be on their own. First, we have to screen all those who have applied to work as deputies and technicians. We received scores of applications for the openings, which closed Monday, July 21. After going through these applications, all candidates passing the initial screening will be tested with physical and written tests. Those who pass those tests will be interviewed. Those who pass the interview process will be given a thorough background investigation, which itself can take more than a month.

Suitable candidates will be given tentative job offers subject to passing a physical and psychological examination. Those who pass all of those examinations will be trained in both an in-house training academy and a mandatory six-week academy at the state level.

Once they return from the academy, we must complete a field training program before the deputies will be qualified to be on their own and can begin to ease the staffing issues that have caused us to keep available jail beds low.

I am eager to see that day approach, as it has been a humbling three years of catch-and-release protocol that has been painful to oversee as your sheriff.

While adding back 100 local beds will not solve all of our custody issues, I look forward to the day when more of the sentenced inmates in our community will more fully serve the sentences they have been given by the courts.

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