After a recent inspection, the state has put the county on notice that its crowded jail conditions – the facility was more than 100 inmates over capacity this week – must be addressed.
Now, officials have until November to submit a plan about how the county is going to address the overcrowded jail, which has been over its maximum capacity of 322 inmates for months.
An expansion is going to be necessary, county officials said.
The goal is for the county to come up with its own plan, possibly expanding in phases or expanding other programs as well, in an attempt to try to keep costs down. If the county was taken to federal court over the crowded conditions, which has happened before, a judge would make the decision, costing taxpayers significantly more, Johnson County Commissioner Kevin Walls said.
Story continues below gallery
On the list of possibilities: a jail expansion, potentially being done in phases, an expansion of community corrections that houses the work release and home detention programs and possibly converting the juvenile detention center into space for the jail, such as for female inmates, Walls said.
“There is no good answer that doesn’t cost money,” Walls said.
How much each option would cost is not yet known, but the county could be required to have a public vote if the cost is more than $12 million.
The county is working with a design and engineering firm to study the jail, Johnson County Community Corrections and the Johnson County Juvenile Detention Center to create an overall plan to address overcrowding, but also meet the needs of the community long-term with other programs as well, Walls said.
“We’re looking at a 20-year plan, I am not looking at a 10-year plan,” he said.
“I don’t want to do this again in five to 10 years.”
On Thursday morning, 432 inmates were housed in the jail after a spike due to Wednesday’s roundup of about 50 people charged with drug crimes. But even in the days before then, the jail population had been at or near 400 since late July, according to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.
Jail officials began preparing for the drug roundup about a month ago, ordering extra supplies, including food, clothing and beds, but more supplies have been needed for months as the number of inmates in the jail has remained high, Sheriff Doug Cox said.
He already knows he will be asking the Johnson County Council for additional tax dollars for supplies and medical expenses to last through the rest of the year, due to the number of inmates, he said. For example, the company that provides medical services in the jail charges based on the number of inmates, he said.
But one of the sheriff’s key concerns is safety, both for his staff in the jail and for the inmates.
When the jail is crowded, fights are significantly more likely, putting inmates and his staff at risk, Cox said.
“People already don’t get along outside, think about what happens when they’re in jail,” he said.
The high numbers also don’t allow jailers to separate inmates based on their offenses, such as by the seriousness of their charge or based on whether they committed a violent or non-violent offense, Cox said. Padded cells, meant to protect inmates from hurting themselves, also fill up, along with the area where inmates are sent for disciplinary issues, he said. And then jail workers have to make decisions about which inmates should be released back into the jail with others, and who should stay in the disciplinary area.
He is also concerned about the jail staff, since he already has had a high turnover rate in the past, and the large number of inmates only makes the job more stressful, he said. Last year, the county approved allowing him to hire five new correctional officers, but now the population increase has eliminated the benefits of the staffing increase, he said.
Jail commander Maj. Duane Burgess is constantly worried about the safety of his staff, waiting for the late night phone call about an emergency at the jail, he said.
Finding a solution isn’t an easy process, local officials agreed.
The number of inmates in the jail has increased for multiple reasons, from the increase in drug use, to a growing population to the state’s decision to require offenders with the lowest level felony conviction to serve their sentence at the county jail, rather than a state prison, officials said.
For example, earlier this month when the number of inmates was 399, more than a fourth of them were in jail serving sentences for misdemeanors and low level felonies, and nearly all the others were in jail while their case was going through the court system.
The courts and prosecutor’s office have all been working to lower the number of inmates in the jail as much as possible, from reviewing inmates’ bond amounts to see if any can be lowered to scheduling sentencing and other court hearings earlier to try to move cases along faster.
But those solutions don’t significantly reduce the number of inmates in the jail because the county is limited on who should be released, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.
On Thursday, the day after the roundup of suspected drug dealers, Johnson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Loyd added initial hearings for the cases assigned to his court to his already busy calendar. The point was to see if any of the cases could be resolved — one person did plead guilty and was sentenced — and if anyone could have their bond amount lowered to be released from jail, Loyd said. On Monday, he will do the same with the cases assigned to Johnson County Superior Court 2, he said.
In some cases, Loyd can’t do much to get anyone out of jail any faster, and making that choice always requires a risk and benefit analysis, he said. He considers multiple factors, including the offender’s criminal history, the seriousness of the crime they are charged with, if they have a job and family — making them more likely to stick around for their future court date — and whether he finds them to be credible, he said. If he knows in his gut that someone is not being honest, he isn’t going to try to get them released sooner.
That is why the county has to consider long-term solutions, officials said.
One option the county has been considering for years is building a new community corrections facility, allowing the county to expand space for offenders serving their sentence on work release, but also offering classes and programs meant to address the issues, especially drug use, that lead people to be arrested, Cooper said.
But that doesn’t provide an immediate solution to the crowding issue, Cooper said.
County officials have been discussing a solution to that problem for decades, but nothing has been done, said Loyd, who has served on multiple committees about jail overcrowding.
The closest the county got was in 2010, when a $23 million plan to add up to 528 beds in the jail was turned down by taxpayers in a public referendum. Before then, the county was sued in federal court over crowded jail conditions and a judge required an expansion, Loyd said.
That is something the county wants to avoid this time, and it is a possibility after the notice from the state, Walls said.
But if that were to happen, the cost of the project would significantly go up because the county would be given a timeline, and options would be limited, Loyd said.
“You no longer have the luxury of planning, time and economy. Instead, it’s, ‘You don’t have a choice, build it now,'” Loyd said.
Here is a look at the number of inmates in the jail in recent days. The maximum capacity is 322.
Aug. 15: 393
Aug. 1: 387
July 31: 382
July 14: 367
June 30: 357
June 15: 345
SOURCE: Johnson County Sheriff’s Office
Here is a look at the reasons why jail inmates were in the jail on Aug. 14, when the jail population was 399:
154: Awaiting trial on felony cases
117: Awaiting trial on misdemeanor cases
47: Sentenced to serve jail time for lowest level felony conviction
65: Sentenced to serve jail time for misdemeanor conviction
5: In jail related to civil case
11: Miscellaneous, including parole violations, recently sentenced and warrants from other counties
SOURCE: Johnson County Sheriff’s Office