Sullivan jail overcrowding has reached critical mass

J. H. Osborne • Updated Nov 3, 2017 at 9:04 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County officials continue to talk about how to best solve overcrowding at the county's jail for the long term.

At a meeting Thursday of an ad hoc committee, District Attorney General Barry Stuabus said the situation is critical and there's no reason to think there's going to be a downturn in the number of people being incarcerated. Staubus said the number of cases pursued by his office in the most recent six-month period was 100 more than the prior six-month period.

Staubus and others also reiterated that the explosion in the number of inmates in recent years is directly attributable to drug use. But they clarified that most of those in jail are there due to charges indirectly related to drugs: It's what they're doing to feed their habit that lands them behind bars.

And Criminal Court Judge James Goodwin, too, described the problem as having reached "critical mass" and shed new light for some about factors that have caused the problem.

Goodwin explained that the vast majority of those currently in the county's jail facilites are awaiting trial. That wasn't new information. What was new was this: Most of them are repeat offenders, often jailed now on charges that include violation of probation. They're in jail now because they can't make bond. The bonds are higher because he and other judges are not likely to offer low bonds in such cases.

Goodwin said it comes down to public safety and whether or not the public wants someone out on bond if their record indicates they're likely to commit the same offense again while they're awaiting trial. The primary purpose of bond is to make sure those charged with a crime show up for court, Goodwin said. But he said the law also allows a secondary reason: protecting the public, which typically means a higher bond.

Another misconception cleared up by Goodwin's short appearance (he was taking a break from court) before the committee: No one is in jail in Sullivan County for not paying fines or court costs.

A portion of the group's discussion focused on whether there are any "short-term" solutions to ease the problem until a long-term fix is developed and completed — in all likelihood an expansion of the current jail to take it from having room for 619 inmates to 900 to a 1,000 or perhaps more.

In recent weeks, the jail's capacity has neared 900, and for several months offenders already sentenced to serve as "weekenders" have been turned away when they report to serve their time. Those would all be non-violent, misdemeanor offenders.

A couple of committee members said they've had members of the public ask why inmates, especially the "weekenders," can't be put in some makeshift, temporary location like an old school.

Sheriff Wayne Anderson and members of his staff explained that retrofitting a structure would cost a lot and require additional staff — and committee members said they would rather see that money go toward a long-term solution.

Anderson said the best "short-term" plan is to move ahead with the committee's proposal to seek funding for an outside consultant to develop — as quickly as possible — a master plan for the entire sheriff's office and jail "campus." The long-term plan, Anderson said, is the construction of whatever expansion ultimately is recommended.

The group will meet again in two weeks with a goal of finalizing a resolution it will present to the Sullivan County Commission seeking permission to get the ball rolling to hire a consultant to develop the master plan.