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MAHONING COUNTY Officials seek to dissolve court order regarding jail



Published: Wed, August 8, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The sheriff's department has met all the conditions of the court order.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County officials want out from under a federal court order that has locked down the way they run the county jail.

A motion was filed this week in U.S. District Court, seeking to dissolve the 1996 order, which came about because of a lawsuit filed by county jail inmates in 1992.

"Now that we're in full compliance, it's time for the consent decree to end and let the sheriff run the jail," Assistant Prosecutor Thomas N. Michaels said.

He was not sure whether federal Judge Peter C. Economus will conduct a hearing before ruling on the motion.

Atty. Robert Armbruster of the Akron law firm Armbruster & amp; Kelley, who represents the inmates, could not be reached to comment.

Basis of lawsuit: The inmates sued the county, complaining that the poor condition of the former county jail on West Boardman Street violated their civil rights, largely because it was overcrowded and understaffed.

To help settle the suit, the county built a new $35 million jail on Fifth Avenue, which opened in 1996. That eliminated the overcrowding problems and deplorable conditions of the old jail, but other problems cropped up that kept the county under the court's thumb.

The county's unstable financial condition, brought on by the on-again, off-again status of a 0.5 percent sales tax, kept the sheriff's department in a state of flux.

Every time the tax went off the books, the department was forced to lay off personnel, causing it to fall short of the number of deputies required by the consent decree for manning the jail.

Voters reinstated the tax last year, allowing Sheriff Randall Wellington to bring his staffing levels up to par. Once the jail staff's training was brought up to date, the county was in full compliance, Michaels said.

New federal law: He said a federal law passed in 1996, known as the Prison Litigation Reform Act, loosened the courts' ability to enforce a consent decree indefinitely.

Michaels said that under the new law, the consent decree was subject to termination by either party after April 26, 1998. The ongoing problems with staffing and finances kept him from seeking dismissal before now.

"Until the sheriff's department was in full compliance with all terms and conditions, I did not feel it would be proper to ask the court to terminate the consent decree," he said.

bjackson@vindy.com




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