Jail: Need for space not the only challenge

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

The one thing Vicksburg’s county, municipal and court officials can do in coming months to provide the greatest relief to local taxpayers for decades to come is conduct a bottoms-up and top-down review of how local detentions are managed.

Changes must be made so that criminal cases are decided in months, not years.

Warren County is on the brink of spending at least $26 million to build a 350-bed jail. Apportioned to our 50,000 residents, the cost, without interest or any other expenses, will be $520 per person for every man, woman and child.

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Additionally, staffing will triple as the local detention capacity nearly triples from the 128-bed jail facility on Grove Street. The county faces additional medical, meal and maintenance expenses, plus the added cost of ferrying detainees from an expected rural site. Toss in utility expenses for the new complex to be added to those that will continue if the existing jail is converted to office and courtroom space. For every $1 million in new annual costs, the burden per taxpayer will be another $20, or $80 per year for a family of four.

Meeting with judges and law enforcement leaders, Dave Voorhis of Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services, the county’s consultant on the project, pointed out that almost every person now held in the Warren County Jail is facing court disposition. Add up to 50 people the City of Vicksburg pays to house in Issaquena County and it becomes clear that if nothing is done to expedite cases, the new jail will just fill up and a design alternative, which allows expansion to 600 beds, will have to be implemented almost immediately — ratcheting up ongoing costs even more.

People think of jails as places where people serve time. Here, that’s not true. It’s a place where people stay, sometimes for well over a year, merely waiting to have their cases decided. When the cases are decided, defendants are, if guilty, credited with time served at local expense. While felony convicts serving time are legally the financial responsibility of the state, there is no reimbursement to the county in such situations.

The factors that create this situation are many and convoluted. Some factors, such as Mississippi’s grand jury system for felony charges, can’t be changed at the local level.

Three steps can be taken, and must be.

• Create a public defender’s office.

District 1 Supervisor David McDonald said the county now spends about $550,000 on private attorneys each year. Some appointed attorneys are diligent. Others handle the cases only when they choose to take a break from better-paying private clients. By hiring attorneys fulltime to serve indigent defendants, the county would save money. It’s a change that can be made immediately.

• Create case management officers.

Used in other jurisdictions, these jail staffers make sure no defendants get lost in the system, that cases are expedited where possible and appropriate parties, such as the state of Mississippi, are billed for costs.

• Impose more creative and alternative sentences.

McDonald and Voorhis expect supervisors to move forward in naming a working group early next year. If this group’s work is done right and, more importantly, implemented, the savings to law-abiding Vicksburg families in years to come could be, on average, hundreds of dollars.

Crime is a reality that must be dealt with. Warren County’s detention rate now compares favorably with the national statistics, but that is a false reading based on the jail capacity today and Vicksburg’s use of other facilities. If an expensive new jail is built and quickly filled with defendants who are stacked up to await court action, the cost will be unnecessarily high. The problem will be compounded, not solved.

County and city leaders, working with court officials and law enforcement, must devise a more efficient process. Let’s pay what we have to, but not more than we need to.