By JOY BROWN
Sign a contract to pay higher fees for inmates housed at the Hancock County jail, but also pursue money-saving alternatives, Findlay Council’s Appropriations Committee told city administrators Tuesday.
If the full City Council agrees, Mayor Lydia Mihalik is expected to enter into a one-year contract with the Hancock County commissioners that calls for jail fees to increase from $55 to $84 per day.
That would translate to the city paying more than $1 million to house inmates this year, compared to $671,000 last year, the mayor said.
Findlay Municipal Court judges, aware of the fee increase and frustrated by jail overcrowding that prevents people from promptly serving their sentences, are forming a contingent that will visit the Clermont County Community Alternative Sentencing Center on Feb. 24.
Located in southwestern Ohio, the center is the first of its kind to take advantage of a newer state law that allows different housing for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders.
With Hancock County’s permission, or even under its management, Findlay officials want to further explore the concept of creating such a facility here. It could operate in concert with the city’s Work Opportunity & Rehabilitation Center, and collaborate with the Hancock County Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board to provide substance abuse treatment.
Like work-release participants, those who take advantage of the new program would pay for their housing, although the alternative center by law wouldn’t be allowed to turn away anyone who wants to participate but can’t pay.
Subsidized stays would cost the city as much as $50 per day less than the higher fee the county is now requesting, officials said.
Municipal Judge Robert Fry said he told Clermont County officials, “I really don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Just help us out here” with ideas and suggestions.
Studies have shown that jail and prison overcrowding is only expected to worsen, Fry said. He described House Bill 86, the state’s answer in 2011 to prison overcrowding, as “a complete flop.”
Fry said he’s not sure how much start-up costs would be for an alternative sentencing center, but there may be funding possibilities from grants, and from the municipal court’s alcohol treatment fund for indigent defendants.
Service-Safety Director Paul Schmelzer said the city has money on hand to pay the county’s higher jail fees until about midyear. He suggested City Council, at its midyear budget review, then consider a specific appropriation for the remainder of the year.
“I believe we have a good relationship with them (commissioners),” Mihalik said. “Conversations on the community alternative sentencing center have been amicable so far. I think taking a close examination and given the good partnership between the two of us (city and county), we can pull it off.”
City officials are also looking at the possibility of sending some inmates to other jails. Administrators said the Putnam County jail charges $55 per day, and would be able to house five females and 10 males from Findlay each day.
The Seneca County jail charges $58 a day, and can house 15 males and 20 females. Transportation costs would, of course, be extra for the city.
Mihalik said she is also negotiating booking changes. She said she found out the city has historically been paying for a full day at the jail, even when an inmate is booked in at 11 p.m.
“Even if we get everything put in place, it’s not going to solve everything,” Fry warned. “We’re just trying to control costs and implement swift justice where people serve their time when they should” instead of reporting to jail and being turned away because of overcrowding, he said.
Mihalik said the county’s $84 fee seems firm at this point.
City administrators said they couldn’t explain why county commissioners didn’t gradually increase the fee since 1989.
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