Justice committee mulls ways to track jail numbers

Published 12:03 pm Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tracking the jail population in Warren County could become the job of a deputy jail administrator if the position is restored to the sheriff’s department’s budget, Sheriff Martin Pace said Wednesday.

Charting how long inmates await trial and making sure the judicial system is aware of it regularly was a key recommendation of professional jail planners when an exhaustive, 16-month study of building a new jail and other systemic changes wrapped up in April. Supervisors funded it up to $50,000 in the department’s budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year that starts Friday. An aggressive search for land and financing for a new jail has been put off at least a year due to cost.

Adding the function to a deputy jail administrator’s duties of managing shifts and other issues with the inmates makes the most sense if the job function falls under his department, Pace said at the conclusion of the third meeting of a local justice system committee of elected officials, judges and court personnel. Currently, the jail has a single administrator while the deputy post was taken out of the staffing structure within the past decade, Pace said. Whether someone is hired to fill the job or if it’s folded into current staff responsibilities hasn’t been determined.

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Ideal dimensions of a new jail dictate a 350-bed facility on a 20- to 50-acre site, with capacity expandable to 650 beds in the future, according to the study conducted by Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services. Jail staff would have to triple compared to current levels after the first year, the study also noted. A property tax increase, built into a higher millage rate, appears inevitable to finance the estimated $30 million project.

Since the study’s completion, officials have considered moving to a public defender staff of up to four attorneys to cut indigent defense costs. So far, efforts have involved caps of $700 on attorney fees on such cases. About 10.5 percent of the inmates in Warren County Jail this week have been incarcerated six months or more, including two for violating probation. The percentage is down from a list generated during the committee’s July meeting, when 22 percent had spent at least six months waiting to be tried.

No money appeared in the city’s budget for helping pay for a jail, though Mayor Paul Winfield made an initial overture, saying, “the door is open” for the two local governments to finance it. Winfield, an attorney, also said the judges were ultimately responsible for speeding up criminal cases.

“Judges run the dockets,” Winfield said. “They have the ultimate say.”

Municipal Court Judge Nancy Thomas, making a first appearance at a justice committee meeting along with Winfield, said a “culture of deterrence” needs to be built throughout the entire criminal justice system in Vicksburg and Warren County. A change last week to city ordinances governing municipal court fines is expected to bring about higher fees, with a new list of fees expected to tack on specific charges for additional crimes and court requests.

The justice system committee is set to meet again Oct. 26.

Warren County’s five supervisors attended Wednesday’s session, as did Circuit Judge Jim Chaney, Kenya Burks, the city’s chief of staff, District Attorney Ricky Smith, County Administrator John Smith, Youth Court Administrator Rachel Hardy and Warren Yazoo Mental Health executive director Don Brown.