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ORVJC could be potential site

If the “ifs” can be overcome, Lawrence County may have found an answer to housing inmates somewhere other than its current outmoded facility that continues to fail state inspections.

That answer could be a partnership between the county, the state and STAR Justice Center, a criminal rehabilitation facility in neighboring Scioto County.

“We are at a crisis point,” Lawrence County Commission President Les Boggs told a packed commission chamber on Wednesday at a special meeting of the county jail committee. “Our facility, we are probably the worst in the state. … Our facility is out of compliance.”

On the table is a proposal that would open the former Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility in Franklin Furnace that closed three years ago, putting hundreds out of work. The state has tried twice to sell the approximately 40-acre multi-dormitory facility.

The most recent bids were taken on Feb. 12 and are currently under review. State officials have said there is no timeline for that review.

“We both have needs,” Boggs said. “Maybe something can be done to kill two birds with one stone. Share needs.”

The most recent inspection of the jail in 2012 had it in noncompliance with 39 of the minimum standards for jails, including not providing the mandatory square footage the state requires for each prisoner, which is 50 square feet of sleeping space and 35 square feet of day space.

That requirement means the current jail, whose daily census can run from 70 to 100 depending on the season, should only house 16 inmates. About a year ago, Sheriff Jeff Lawless requested of the department of rehabilitation and correction a variance to house 58 prisoners. A variance was recently granted, upping that figure to 27.

The facility built in the 1970s has cost the county approximately $600,000 yearly in supplies, repairs and out-of-county housing expenses when inmates are sent to Scioto, Morrow and Ashland counties.

Attending the jail committee meeting were representatives from the state department of corrections, department of youth services and Gov. John Kasich’s office.

Gary Mohr, director of the department of rehabilitation and correction, introduced the idea of re-opening the juvenile center for new uses with a 100-bed wet cell to become the county jail and other wings to be used by STAR.

“That is a large, sprawling facility,” Mohr said. “Is it worth pursuing? Is this worth putting a task force together?”

On top of the county’s need for an upgraded jail is the desire of STAR to expand from a 140 to 200-plus bed center. The program offers an alternative to prison for nonviolent felons that currently has a four-month waiting list. The average stay is 130 days with the maximum time at 180 days. The goal is rehabilitation.

If the state were to re-open the ORVJC, STAR would move its entire operation to the juvenile center, which is located next door.

Commissioner Bill Pratt noted the juvenile facility would provide the increased square footage required by the state for inmates and required visitation and exercise areas. With the new space requirements, the state also requires a smaller ratio of corrections officers to inmates, increasing salary costs for the jail.

“I think we have solved that problem,” Pratt said, referring to the county no longer needing to pay for maintenance and out of housing costs if the ORVJC were used.

However Pratt questioned what would be the terms of the arrangement between the state and the county to use the juvenile center, noting if the county shut down the current jail, it would not be grandfathered back in.

“If we don’t have a long-term agreement, we would put ourselves in danger,” he said.

The commissioner suggested a 20-year lease arrangement for the center built in 1996.

“There could be structural issues down the road and we need to know them ahead of time,” he said. “There are a few questions we need to think about.”

Another factor to be considered is Scioto County Marty Donini’s willingness to agree to the use of the ORVJC.

“Sheriff Donini would have to be on board to house people out of the county,” Lawless said.

If Donini did not agree to relinquish jurisdiction, he would be in charge of a jail at ORVJC, even though the inmates would be Lawrence County prisoners.

The next step is the formation of a task force to explore the potential of using the juvenile center.