Locked up Filled up

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 3, 2005

Just locking up the bad guys may work in Hollywood but tossing criminals in the slammer is not that easy in the real world.

The Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association estimated last week as many as 70 of Ohio's 81 county jails, including five regional lockups, regularly house more prisoners than they were intended to hold.

Such an estimation doesn't come as a surprise to Lawrence County authorities.

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"Overcrowding is an issue, always," Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton said.

He has a point: When the Lawrence County Jail was opened in 1974, it was built with 52 beds.

Over the years, 6 portable beds were added, extending the number of beds to 58. But often, the number of inmates behind bars in Lawrence County exceeds 70.

Why so many inmates? There are a number of factors, among them: Better law enforcement and subsequently more arrests, state guidelines on who can and cannot be sent to state prisons and repeat offenders - people who are arrested over and over again for different offenses.

Better law enforcement

Sexton and he is proud of the work the sheriff's office is doing in matching crimes with the appropriate suspect or suspects.

A case in point: Last week, deputies arrested Joe Inscoe, 25, of 80 County Road 408, Proctorville, in connection with three eastern end break-ins.

Lawrence County deputies were called to investigate three separate incidents and determined all three incidents were committed by the same person.

Inscoe was tracked to West Virginia and authorities there located and arrested him. Some of the stolen property was allegedly recovered at the time of the arrest.

On Thursday, deputies were called to investigate a Lawrence Township burglary and shortly thereafter made an arrest and recovered some of the items allegedly taken in the incident. Christopher Jenkins, 21, 96 Private Drive 3670 State Route 93, Ironton, was charged with second-degree felony burglary and taken to jail.

Good police work, it seems, fills jail cells.

"The detectives bureau, the (Lawrence County)

drug task force and the officers are doing a good job getting people arrested and getting more people convicted," Lawrence County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jeff Lawless said.

County jail or prison?

A few years ago, state guidelines were changed on what convicts could be housed in state prisons and what convicts would be considered a local problem. Those changes meant that more convicts would be kept on the local nickel rather than the state picking up the tab.

Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Richard Walton said those state guidelines specify a number of factors that are weighed when determining if the convict will stay in a county jail or be sent to state prison.

Factors include: The kind of crime, severity of the crime and whether the convicted felon has had a prior conviction or is on probation at the time of the arrest and whether the crime is indicative of a pattern of behavior rather than a single criminal incident.

"What the state government said, unless it falls into some other category, if someone breaks into a neighbor's barn and steals a $4,000 ATV, he's going to go to county jail unless he has a prior felony or is on probation when it happened," Walton said. But on the other hand,

"If someone, however, breaks into 18 churches, this may be considered a pattern, this is not just, 'oops, I made a mistake.'"

"Long-term inmate population has become a big issue," Lawless said.

"We have a lot of people charged with felonies who have been here quite some time and will be here quite some time," Lawless said.

Is it the jail food?

Ironton Police Capt. Dan Johnson thumbed through a stack of index cards that are the arrest record of the "most arrested" man in all of Ironton.

"The first time he was arrested by us was in 1968. He was born in 1946, so he was 21 at the time," Johnson said. "This shows only the number of times he has been arrested by us - this does not include the number times Russell (Ky.,) police have arrested him, of the county."

"He" is Jesse Johnson, of Russell, Ky., who has been arrested an estimated 300 times since that first time in 1968. Most of his arrests are for drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

When a person is arrested, police fill out a card with the person's name, vital information, the date of the person's arrest and type of charge against him or her.

Each time the person is arrested after that, the arrest is recorded on the card. Most arrestees have only one card. Jesse Johnson, (no relation to Capt. Johnson), has approximately 20 cards to his name.

"It's a whole catalog," dispatcher Tina White said, eyeing the stack of cards.

Officers say they sometimes have to deal with Jesse Johnson two or three times per shift and over the years, he has gotten more violent.

And Jesse Johnson is not the only repeat offender: Local authorities say they know a number of people they are familiar with because they have been arrested more than once - even more than twice or three times. When the repeat offenders are taken to jail, they put an even bigger strain on a jail that is already overcrowded.

"Nuisance inmates are a problem, Lawless agreed. "But we understand people can't be left on the street to cause problems."

The effects

Sexton pointed out that while the number of inmates may have risen over the years, the amount of money allocated to care for them and supervise them has not.

Last year, the sheriff's office spent $92,000 on food for inmates and $22,000 for medical expenses, all of which is mandated and regulated by state law.

A staff of 12 corrections officers and two cooks handle daily operations at the jail. Even when the inmate roster swells to 80, Sexton cannot add more security, he doesn't have the money in his budget to do it.

"People do not realize what all there is beyond arresting someone and taking them to jail," Sexton said. "You take in an inmate and you have to feed them, house them. If they need medical care it must be provided. If they are on prescription medication it must be provided.

"If they have insurance that helps but more often than not, they don't. We have to transport these people to and from jail to go to court appearances, we have to take them to prison, to medical appointments."

Severe overcrowding sometimes calls for severe action: If the population gets too large some inmates are shipped to other jails - an often costly measure used as a last resort.

The cheapest price for housing a Lawrence County inmate in another county's jail is $45 a day per inmate

- but while that sounds like a bargain, it isn't, Sexton said. The two counties with the lowest charge are Miami and Morrow.

Add up the cost of housing 10 inmates even in these counties and the price tag can soar to $13,500 a month.

Both Morrow and Miami counties are 2 to 3 hour drives from Lawrence County. That inmate housed out of county must still be brought back and forth for court appearances here.

Transporting an inmate takes at least one corrections officer each time a trip is necessary - more if there is more than one prisoner making the trip.

Since Sexton's staff is small, taking an officer away from his regular duties usually means overtime, plus the additional cost of transporting prisoners while gas prices are so high.

Lawless said most inmates who are housed out of county are usually long-term inmates.

Possible solutions

The ultimate solution to relieve overcrowding is to build a new jail - something Sexton would like but admits is highly unlikely. The county has no money for a new jail and state funding for such projects is minimal.

Home confinement has the potential to reduce overcrowding in jails, local authorities said. Ten Lawrence Countians are on home confinement at this time.

So, while many law enforcement officers will agree with the old adage that "crime doesn't pay," they are quick to say that stopping criminals costs quite a bit.