Sheriff’s office trapped in vicious cycle

Published 10:21 pm Saturday, November 21, 2009

Crime itself may not pay but the reality is that we are going to have to do just that if we hope to ever curb its ever-growing grasp on Lawrence County.

Anyone who lives here knows that drug abuse — which lead to thefts, domestic violence and other crimes — is the biggest problem facing our community. Period.

People can talk about the need for jobs or recreation or infrastructure all they want but those things become irrelevant if we cannot provide adequate law enforcement and public safety services.

Email newsletter signup

Businesses won’t locate here — or stay here long — if they aren’t confident that their investments will be sufficiently protected.

Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless is doing the best he can with what he has got. The problem is that he hasn’t got much.

The sheriff’s office is handcuffed itself by lack of funding, lack of manpower and an overall lack of leadership from the county government when it comes to finding ways to address these problems.

The sheriff is really in a unique and tragic situation: The better he does his job, the worse off things get.

How many other jobs can say that?

In case you didn’t follow the logic there, let me explain.

The sheriff’s office is charged with stopping criminals and putting them in jail.

The more often he does that would be a good indicator of success. But the problem is this: It makes his financial problems worse.

More investigations lead to more work hours. More arrests lead to more jail stays, which leads to overcrowding and more maintenance costs. More inmates lead to more staffing needs.

So it is a vicious cycle that Lawless and the agency is trapped in.

The sheriff is doing what he can but the commissioners aren’t doing enough to help.

Lawless spoke to them Thursday to talk about his problems of exponential increases in crimes, operating with eight fewer employees, and the rising costs of catching the bad guys and keeping them off the streets.

While the commissioners offered their sympathy, they didn’t offer much else in terms of help or solutions.

In fact, they warned that next year may be worse.

That’s it? That is the best we can offer this agency that is protecting our families?

Everyone knows that money is tight. Everyone knows the challenges the state is facing and that those problems are going to be passed along to local government.

What the general public doesn’t know is what is being done to fix this problem.

Government is tasked with providing necessary services to its constituents. What is more necessary than law and order and public safety?

Now is time for some drastic rethinking of every service the Lawrence County government provides, a re-envisioning of what we expect.

This will start with open conversation and discussion. And that means the public has to get involved.

I challenge the county to host a series of townhall-style meetings focusing on the crime problem, the financial challenges and the other hurdles facing our communities.

These need to be well-publicized with commitments from community leaders to attend. The Tribune will donate space to get the word out.

We need to start a serious conversation about what services could be cut in order to better fund the sheriff’s office. Some options, like consolidating 911 with the sheriff’s office, need to be given more attention than just lip service.

The sheriff needs to know that he isn’t going to suffer more when his department does its job well.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at