Panel considers fixes for Cole County Jail overcrowding

A program being used in Greene County may help thin the jail population at the Cole County Jail.

County commissioners on Thursday approved proceeding with an idea by Presiding Judge Pat Joyce to establish a pre-trial release screening and supervision program.

Joyce, working with the other judges in the circuit along with Sheriff Greg White, told commissioners the program would provide better information to the courts on making bond decisions and to create accountability for those defendants who are released prior to trial proceedings.

This comes after commissioners had concerns about the growing inmate population at the county jail, which has been open only a couple of years and yet is seeing many days where the inmate numbers are close to capacity.

White gave figures showing through June more than 3,300 inmates have been booked into the jail this year, with a monthly average population of 134 in January, growing to 174 in June.

The operational capacity of the jail is 180.

“With the old jail, we could hold as many as 120 people here and other places,” said Presiding Commissioner Marc Ellinger. “Then with the new jail, we start off with an average of 105 inmates and in a short time we’re hitting our limit.”

“A few days ago, the jail administrator called me to let me know we were under 10 beds left for male inmates, which means we have to start looking at other jurisdictions to house inmates, but fortunately we were able to work things out and avoid moving people,” White said.

Currently, according to information from Joyce, the Cole County courts have no resources, other than relying on the prosecutors’ limited information, to assess the risk of flight and danger to the community posed by a defendant. That means bond decisions are made on factors that lead to more pre-trial incarceration.

Joyce said a number of jurisdictions have found that many people could be released pre-trial with some form of supervision, without significant negative consequences, leading to substantial direct and indirect cost savings.

The program calls for each defendant charged with a felony who remained in jail and unable to make bond for more than three days, be screened through a pre-trial release coordinator.

This person would collect information and give it to the judges showing whether a defendant would qualify for pre-trial release.

The coordinator, with assistance of court marshals, would implement supervision services such as call-ins, drug testing, monitor violations and verification of residency and employment.

Court officials recently surveyed 19 Cole County felony defendants selected on a random basis and found that 17 met the criteria for low to moderate risk and could be released on supervision. This sample group averaged 80 days in jail at the time of the survey. Using conservative assumptions, at least five and possibly 10 of these defendants could be released pre-trial on certain conditions, saving jail space for more dangerous offenders or more profitable defendants such as federal prisoners.

“If this program works as good as the drug court program, then we’ll be in good shape,” White said.

Joyce, who oversees drug court, said in that program seven out of 10 defendants who go through graduate and there’s only a 5 percent recidivism rate.

The pre-trial release program does have the support of Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson, who said the program would keep the public safe since those charged with dangerous offenses such as rape or murder would not qualify.

Ellinger said while he did support the idea, he still wondered if this is the long-term fix since he’s heard of cases where people have stayed in the jail for more than a year before their cases get resolved.

“Ninety percent of our cases we see have defendants pleading guilty,” Joyce said. “My open cases are down from last year and I think a big problem is that we put people in jail that can’t afford to pay their bond, but could be out with the pre-trial program, able to work and contribute to society.”

Using Greene County’s numbers, as many as 25 defendants could be on pre-trial release at any one time. They would be monitored by electronic shackling and required to do things such as taking drug and alcohol testing to make sure they complied with the conditions of their release.

Joyce said it would probably take a month to get the program up and running, so they hoped they could be ready by September. By the end of the year, she said they could come back to the commission to give them numbers on how much was being saved because of the program.

Ellinger said it looks like it will cost the county around $15,000 to hire the coordinator and provide equipment for the program to last through the end of the year.

White also said the jail has served more than 63,000 meals since the start of the year and done 467 transports of prisoners for a variety of reasons.

White also reported that the jail air conditioning units have been found to have factory defective materials and parts. The cooling coils in one unit were found to have damage, causing a leak, and all the units have a defective valve that causes leaks. Maintenance personnel have replaced at least three valves and those have the same problem as the original valves. Low freon levels have caused strain on the compressors and have reportedly caused compressors to fail.

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