By JIM MAURER
With money used to house overflow prisoners in area jails expected to run out next month, officials of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office went before county commissioners Tuesday to seek additional funds.
However, there are no county funds available to cover the expenses, commissioner President Brian Robertson told them. The commissioners plan to review the funding issue with county officials and discuss it further during the July 31 regular commissioner meeting before making a decision.
A number of law enforcement and justice system officials met with commissioners Tuesday to discuss the need for additional funds for prisoner housing/transportation for the rest of the year, although no specific dollar amount was requested.
About $386,000 has been spent this year to transport and house inmates in neighboring jails, and about $14,000 remains for August, according to Becky Smith, sheriff’s office fiscal officer. That amount will only last about 10 days at the current expense rate.
“Our bed capacity is 98, if we go more than 10 over, that pretty much fills us up,” Sheriff Mike Heldman said, and then the county looks at housing prisoners in nearby counties at a daily expense to the county.
While there were 123 prisoners Tuesday, the prisoner population has exceeded 160 this year.
A tax issue last year to fund jail expansion, jail maintenance and a new county office building was defeated by voters last year.
Commissioner Tim Bechtol said imposing a sales tax is an option for the commissioners, but he does not favor such action without “broad community support.”
Though he didn’t say whether the commissioners would take such a step, Robertson did say imposition of a sales tax can be done now in increments of tenths of a percent, instead of by quarter percent increments, following a state law change. He said the county carryover balance was about $115,400 as of June 30. But costs and expenses are up, so there’s no guarantee of the year-end carryover amount.
Meanwhile, the courts and prosecutor’s office have been trying to find ways to reduce the jail population, but “unfortunately, we have a lot of inmates who need to be held, so it’s an issue,” county Prosecutor Phil Riegle said.
As an example, arraignment hearings have been added on Friday mornings so that defendants who are likely to be released on a personal recognizance bond can be seen quickly as possible.
Though the judges can release some of those facing jail time, there are some offenders who must be held in jail, county common pleas court Judge Jonathan Starn said.
“We’ve been working with the sheriff, the judges and the prosecutors, having conversations for quite some time about what we can do to try and manage the (jail) population,” Starn said. “But we’re already making decisions about people … who could or should be detained and letting some of them out now. If we eliminate outside housing now, we’re further going to make people who today I would look at and say ‘this person should be incarcerated,’ and tomorrow, if I have to make the same decision (and there are no beds available) then someone who should be in jail today, gets out tomorrow.”
“These are folks that need to be incarcerated,” he said.
Starn said individuals who commit crimes is “one part of the (criminal justice) system we can’t control.”
Robertson said, “I don’t think the Board of Commissioners is looking to say who to jail and who not to jail, but to tell you what the situation is. Our shareholders in the community rejected our funding request. We wanted that funding based on what we thought was necessary to ensure the necessary level of safety and security for our town and our community as a whole.”
“This is the situation we’re in,” Robertson said. “This is what we’ve been given by our shareholders. Not a single taxpayer or single elected official controls who commits a crime, and that ultimately is what drives the cost and the needs around safety and security.”
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