Finding space for those ordered to serve jail terms for crimes and serious traffic offenses will not be easy or without great cost. But it must be accomplished if criminal justice officials continue to subscribe to the “do the crime, serve the time” philosophy.
Saturday’s story (Page A1) about people being turned away from the Hancock County jail when they show up to serve a scheduled jail term shows the difficulties too many face when they try to comply with a court order. When a person must repeatedly reschedule jail time, only to be turned away again, the delay can create employment and family hardships and take an emotional toll.
City and county officials must work together to find a solution.
The problem, while technically a jail issue, is more than Sheriff Mike Heldman’s.
Jail terms are meant to serve as a punishment for a crime. When a sentence is not carried out in a timely fashion, though, justice is not served for the public nor the offender. Requiring a person to reschedule a jail term, time and time again, could be viewed as cruel and unusual punishment.
Reporter Joy Brown found that it is becoming much harder, especially for women, to serve time for both felony and misdemeanor crimes. A Courier analysis of court records found that from Jan. 1 through June 17, 27 men and 45 women were turned away a total of 174 times after showing up to serve jail time, most often because beds were lacking.
Twenty-six had been rejected three or more times since their conviction, one of which dated to 2012. At this year’s pace, the jail will surpass last year’s rejection record of 278.
Heldman knows that expanding the 98-bed jail would be the obvious answer, but not practical financially. But he believes the city and county must have a discussion soon about other options.
“We’re responsible for housing people when the court sends them to us, so, yes, it is our problem,” Heldman said Thursday. “But it’s really a community problem. If we believe someone should go to jail for a crime, we have to be able to find a place to keep them.”
In the short term, the best solution could be to contract with other area jails, such as those in Putnam and Wood counties. While a common practice until 2007, Heldman said that has been avoided in recent years primarily because of the cost, which includes transporting an offender to another jail.
In the long term, a jail where only those convicted of misdemeanor and serious traffic offenses would serve sentences may be the answer. Such a facility would have to meet state requirements for those who must serve mandatory time behind bars, but are less costly to build and operate.
The county studied a scaled-down lockup before, but the idea fell by the wayside when the recession hit.
The issue can’t be avoided much longer.
It’s important to note the problem isn’t new or unique to Hancock County, but is getting worse.
Other cities and counties are having similar problems finding beds for those facing jail terms. The crunch has been created by more laws which require mandatory sentences for certain crimes and the state’s push to house more lower-level felons in county jails rather than in state prisons.
Those offenders take up beds that would otherwise be used by misdemeanor offenders, who then must wait their turn for a jail vacancy in order to pay their debt to society.
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