By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
The overcrowding of Madison County’s 195-bed detention center has been a topic of discussion for years now.
The Richmond Register reported that during an April 2007 fiscal court meeting, Magistrate Larry Combs said building a new jail must be a top priority. Other news stories followed, which covered issues surrounding alternatives to incarceration and the jail’s funding.
The conversation continued at Tuesday’s fiscal court meeting when Magistrate Billy Ray Hughes, who said he has been “studying our jail situation,” brought up the affects of House Bill 463.
In 2011, the General Assembly passed HB 463 which aimed to reduce jail population and incarceration costs by allowing police to cite offenders for low-level crimes instead of automatically jailing them. It also encouraged treatment programs for drug offenders.
On Monday, the Madison County Detention Center housed 300 inmates, said Madison County Jailer Doug Thomas. But 10 inmates were transferred out by the state Department of Corrections because the jail was more than 125 percent over capacity.
If county prisoners are added to the jail and state prisoners are removed because of overcrowding, the county loses revenue generated by housing state prisoners, said Judge-Executive Kent Clark.
If this continues over the next three years, he said, fiscal court could be supplementing the jail budget with $2.3 million, leaving tax payers to foot the bill.
State prisoners can bring in up to $70,000 a month in state funds to the detention center, Thomas reported in the past.
But as the county’s population grows, so will its jail population, Clark said.
Based on a study of the county’s population growth, the jail will need to provide 420 beds by 2020, he added.
The magistrates tossed around ideas Tuesday to reduce jail population.
“Research shows there are mandatory intensive treatment programs that are more effective than incarceration,” Hughes said.
As a prosecutor, County Attorney Marc Robbins weighed in on the issue.
He invited the fiscal court to take a look at the criminal justice process -- “please come tomorrow (to district court when preliminary hearings are conducted) … and look at what we see on a daily and monthly basis. Then you’ll see where the problem comes from,” he said.
With implementation of HB 463, the judiciary is “erring on the side of letting people out (of jail),” Robbins said.
In some regards, he said, HB 463 has caused more problems because instead of making arrests, officers “cite people and ask them to come to court, rather than make them come to court.”
Monday, there were 36 people on district court’s jail docket “and almost everyone of them were people that had failed to come to court to begin with,” he said.
When people fail to show up to court, the problem is compounded when contempt of court charges are added on top of the original offense, Robbins said.
“It’s a huge problem, and trust me, we are very much aware of the situation, and we try to take that into account in every single case,” he said. “But, more than a financial matter, we need to make sure that the public is protected and the community is safe. I think that is the No. 1 role of government. Letting people out (of jail) to save money and jeopardizing folks that can’t feel comfortable in their home -- I don’t think is a good equation.”
Robbins again invited magistrates to look at the cases and give their thoughts on what should be done with some of the offenders.
“I’m not schooled in criminal justice, but all I can do is look at the research and talk about a mandatory intensive treatment program because so much of our incarceration is because of drug problems,” Hughes said.
“That’s true, but it’s not, at the same time,” Robbins replied. There are few people serving drug possession sentences, he said, but they are serving time for crimes connected to obtaining drugs.
“House Bill 463 talked about treatment. It gave lip-service to treatment, but the reality of it is, there’s not a whole lot there … until there is a better alternative, I think it would be improper to set somebody free for financial reasons if they put our community at risk,” Robbins said.
Later in the meeting, Clark said there are long waiting lists for free drug rehabilitation programs and “unless you’ve got $1,000 a day to go some place, there is not really an option for that.”
Magistrate Greg King said a problem he sees is the jailing of those who are behind on child support.
“We lock them up and put them in jail, and all we’re doing is making more of a burden to county taxpayers when there should be some kind of program that they have to work and pay that money,” King said.
As they look at expanding the jail, he said, the fiscal court also should look at “making them work to give back to the community.”
Inmates have “the best air conditioner” and other needs met, he said. “They are took care of better than people who are out here struggling and trying to make it.”
Robbins pointedly asked Jailer Thomas how many people enjoyed staying in jail.
“You might think they are being taken care of better than they should be, but the reality of it is, when you interfere with somebody’s freedom, it’s kind of a big deal,” Robbins said.
Every inmate who is qualified to be on work-release, is currently working, Clark said.
However, that number is limited because of bed space, Thomas said. Work-release inmates must be housed in a separate area.
“And even if you let them out to work, you still got to bring them back, put them to bed and feed them,” Clark added.
King said before the magistrates decide to build a $4.5 million jail expansion, every alternative should be examined to reduce the jail population.
“We’ve been working on alternatives for years,” Clark shot back. “It’s just one of those things where if we want to keep talking about alternatives and we don’t want to do anything about the problem we’re facing over here, then in three or four years, you all can sit here and vote to double people’s property taxes and see how fair that is, because that’s what it’s coming to -- bottom line.”
Clark said he will have a detailed presentation prepared for the next fiscal court meeting to talk about the jail situation.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.