BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Sullivan County judges and the district attorney general, public defender, sheriff and chief jail administrator agreed Thursday that a short-term solution to jail overcrowding is the creation of a pretrial release program.
That’s what they told the County Commission during a meeting called to hear options from law enforcement officials as requested by a resolution approved in October.
Both of the county’s jail facilities are chronically overcrowded and, on average, surpass combined capacity by around 400 inmates. Since February, work has been underway by design firms Michael Brady Inc., or MBI, and TreanorHL to develop a master plan with the goal of determining whether to remodel and expand the current facilities or build a new jail, which would be a long-term solution.
As of Thursday, Sheriff Jeff Cassidy said 91 of the 960 inmates would qualify for a pretrial release program, which would release nonviolent, low-risk inmates who are awaiting conviction from jail under supervision. Releasing that many inmates would require hiring at least five certified officers to supervise them, which would include home visits, Cassidy said. The program would be modeled after Knox County’s, which has seen a 90% success rate, according to Public Defender Andrew Gibbons.
“I think this is a very good idea,” Cassidy said. “It’s almost like probation stipulations. Our officers would be watching them, monitoring, making sure they show up to the court dates.”
There were 643 pretrial inmates housed at the jail facilities on felony and misdemeanor charges Thursday, according to Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell.
Hiring five officers would cost $511,000 per year, including salaries and benefits, plus one-time vehicle and equipment costs, Cassidy said.
Another option Cassidy proposed is to put modular housing units on the property near the current jail facilities to house inmates, but the cost isn’t feasible, he said. A 128-bed unit would cost more than $1 million to buy and could end up in the way of new construction in the future. Renting a 39-bed unit would cost more than $200,000 for 179 days, and it would cost more than $100,000 for every 179 days thereafter.
Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus also recommended the pretrial release program as long as inmates who qualify are carefully picked. He and Criminal Court Judge Jim Goodwin said the program along with drug treatment programs would be most effective.
“I think it’s a complicated problem that we have,” Staubus said. “There’s no one magic, easy solution. It’s going to be a combination of programs. That’s why I’m an advocate of the [Branch House] Family Center because we’re trying to reduce recidivism in domestic violence cases.”
Since August of 2018, 20% of cases are failure-to-appear charges, which exacerbates the problem, and a pretrial release program is a solution to that, Staubus said.
Gibbons also said he supports the establishment of a pretrial release program but believes the state needs to step up to better fund the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s crime labs to decrease its backlog of evidence that needs to be analyzed because the delay contributes to jail overcrowding across the state. Goodwin added that it takes the Knoxville lab — which handles Sullivan County’s cases — on average, between eight months and one year to complete testing.
Goodwin recommended that the commission hire 10 to 15 additional officers to handle supervising 300 inmates in a pretrial release program.
“Drug and alcohol addiction are the root cause of the jail population explosion we are experiencing at this time,” he said. “Programs are desperately needed to address the addiction. … The time for discussion has passed, and the time for action is upon us. … We’ll never build our way out of the situation we’re in.”
The county’s “drug epidemic” touches 85% to 90% of the cases Goodwin adjudicates, he said.
Commissioner Hunter Locke said he’ll sponsor a resolution at the commission’s regular meeting later this month to create the pretrial release program.
Sullivan County General Sessions Court Judge David Tipton said he sentences people to community service as much as possible to avoid sending them to jail. He said he believes the state needs to fund another full-time Criminal Court judge so cases can be expedited.
Sullivan County General Sessions Court Judge Ray Conkin said he agrees with the pretrial release program.
After the meeting, MBI and
TreanorHL presented two new long-term renovation and expansion options to the commission in addition to the three that were given in September.
The options presented then were:
» A new 1,400-bed jail on a new 30-acre site for $110 million;
» A new 1,400-bed jail on a new 30-acre site for $110 million plus the future option to relocate all county and city courts to the site with no cost estimate to do so.
» An additional 560 beds at the main jail and 240 beds at the extension to bring capacity to 1,419 inmates. Male inmates would be housed at the main jail and women at the extension. The expansions would be built to allow for future expansion.
On Thursday, the architects revealed that building a new 1,400-bed jail on a 30-acre piece of land in Blountville and bringing all of the county’s courts to the property would cost $167 million, not including the cost to purchase the land.
The two additional options presented were:
» Adding 672 beds at the main jail without expanding the extension to bring total capacity of the two facilities to 1,291 inmates for $69 million.
» Adding 784 beds onto the main jail to bring capacity up to 1,403 inmates for $89 million with the option to add another 448 beds in the future.