YOUNGSTOWN To relieve crowding at county jail, sheriff wants federal inmates out
The county bills the federal government nearly $70 a day for each federal inmate.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Pulling all the federal inmates out of the Mahoning County Jail will eliminate one problem but create another one.
The jail has been overcrowded lately, mostly because more federal inmates have been temporarily housed in the lockup.
Because of that, Sheriff Randall Wellington told federal authorities to find other quarters for the inmates. All the federal inmates are to be withdrawn from the jail within a week, the sheriff said.
But shipping them out will come at a price.
The federal government pays the county $67 a day for each inmate kept in the jail. They're at the jail awaiting arraignment or trials in federal court on various charges.
Brenda Spanos of the U.S. Marshals office said the county was paid $872,041 from October 2000 to September 2001, which is the agency's fiscal year.
"Sure, it's a concern, losing that revenue," Wellington said. "But we have no alternative."
The county operates a full-service jail on Fifth Avenue and a minimum-security facility across the street. Together, they can hold up to 542 people under normal circumstances.
As of this week, there were 590 inmates -- about 50 of them federal inmates -- being kept in the jails.
To accommodate the overflow, inmates have been doubled up in some cells. It's not a popular arrangement with the inmates, but it's allowable under Ohio's jail operation standards, the sheriff said.
Rather than setting county inmates free, Wellington said all the federal inmates must go. He had hoped they would all be gone by now, but the U.S. Marshals office has had trouble finding other places to send them, Wellington said.
"When they are all out of there, that will bring the number down significantly," Wellington said.
David Troutman, U.S. Marshal for the northern district of Ohio, said it's taking time to move the inmates because other jails are also overcrowded. Inmates are being moved as far away as Holmes and Ashland counties in Ohio and to Milan, Mich.
Mahoning is one of the jails often used by the marshals because of its size, outstanding operation and proximity to the federal courthouse here, Troutman said. But he understands why his inmates have to go, at least for now.
"Naturally, their first obligation is to take care of the courts they serve within their own county," Troutman said.
While running the jail isn't necessarily a money-making venture, the loss of revenue will be a tough blow during already difficult financial times, Wellington said.
The county faces the loss of $12 million in operating revenue when a 0.5 percent sales tax expires at the end of the year. Much of that money is used for criminal justice, including operation of the jail.
A renewal attempt was rejected by voters in May, but commissioners plan to put the measure back on the ballot in November. If it fails, budget cuts are imminent, commissioners have said.
That's why Wellington said he wants commissioners to act now and create a pay-for-stay program at the jail. Under the plan, inmates would reimburse the county for the cost of their incarceration.
Such a program has been bandied about by commissioners for more than two years, but no action has been taken.
"It's frustrating," Wellington said. "I have a plan in place, and we are losing out on that revenue."
He has proposed a plan under which $2 a day would be deducted from each inmate's commissary account. That's money inmates use for buying cigarettes, snacks, toiletries and other items from the jail commissary.
Commissioners have also looked into a plan under which all inmates would be billed a flat rate for each day spent behind bars. Only those with the ability to pay, though, would be made to pay.
County Administrator Gary Kubic said neither plan will be put in place until at least late this month, though.
He said a new law regarding pay-for-stay was recently signed by Gov. Bob Taft and does not go into effect until Aug. 26.
"We're not going to be doing anything until after that," Kubic said.
The new law corrects a flaw in the old law that led to a class action lawsuit being filed by jail inmates in Hamilton County over pay-for-stay, Kubic said.
He wasn't sure which proposal commissioners will favor when they do move on pay-for-stay, but said it's still something they intend to do once the new law takes effect.