As of Oct. 2, the Sullivan County jail had 1,010 inmates in a facility designed to hold approximately 620 prisoners. Now is the time to address our jail overcrowding, which is rooted in criminal activity fueled by the drug epidemic in our county. To do so, we must identify and implement strategies that balance the principles of punishment, rehabilitation and public safety while moving forward with the construction of a new jail.
As the district attorney general, I have firsthand knowledge of this criminal activity — whether the charges are drug offenses, such as sale and delivery of the drugs; property crimes, such as burglary and theft committed by addicts to support their addictions; crimes of violence, such as robbery and murder; crimes committed by individuals under the influence of drugs, like DUI; and most disturbingly, crimes committed within our families, including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence and elder abuse. Proposed strategies to alleviate jail overcrowding by wholesale reduction of bonds of those awaiting trial is shortsighted and ignores the fact that the drug addict in most instances returns to his or her criminal activity upon release. In many instances, this well-intended approach sets the individual up for failure and can have the unintended consequence of exacerbating jail overcrowding.
In my experience, releasing a drug-addicted individual without addressing his or her needs for treatment, education, including vocational training, and supervision puts the defendant at risk of committing new crimes while endangering the citizens of Sullivan County that I have been sworn to protect. This results in additional criminal convictions, leading to more incarceration and burdening the criminal justice system with larger caseloads and increased dockets. Therefore, I am a strong advocate that the new jail has space for an in-house center for treating addiction. There should also be room for a vocational training center that allows inmates to obtain practical job skills like welding, plumbing and heat pump/air conditioning maintenance and repair. This would provide meaningful employment and an opportunity for a productive, healthy life.
The new jail must be designed to safely, humanely and efficiently house our current population, as well as any future growth of prisoners. A larger, properly constructed jail will enhance the security and protection of the inmate population while ensuring the safety of our citizens serving as correctional officers.
We must recognize the needs of individuals released from the jail. There should be mentoring programs, job and residential placement plans, as well as conventional probation or parole to assist the transition from incarceration back into society. In addition to a new jail, there is a real need for a residential community correctional facility that can provide programs like those developed in the jail for individuals who are not ready to be released without enhanced supervision. Building a new jail and creating a community corrections facility that implements the approaches previously detailed, combined with existing resources such as Recovery Court, programs established by the Department of Probation and Parole, TN ROCS (Recovery Oriented Compliance Strategy), ankle monitoring and selective bond reduction, should go a long way in not only decreasing jail overcrowding but diminishing recidivism and the prevalence of drug addiction. While this approach will be expensive, we cannot afford the costs, both financial and personal, that will be incurred by ignoring our problems.
However, as effective as these programs may be, there is a greater problem in Sullivan County and our region. There is a cultural, moral and spiritual crisis that casts a shadow over families and our way of life. There is a despair that draws so many people, particularly our youth, to resort to drugs that lead to addiction, crime activity, personal destruction and death. This problem must be addressed by the entire community in a serious and thoughtful manner.