Whether double bunking of inmates in the Mahoning County jail should have been instituted months ago is not the issue today. Difficult economic times demand aggressive management, and that's what Sheriff Randall Wellington is offering with his plan to increase the number of federal prisoners being housed in the criminal justice center.
As a result of budget cuts, brought about by the worsening condition of the county's general fund, Wellington has had to lay off 54 deputies. But he will be able to bring them back to work with the additional revenue the sheriff's department would earn from the federal bureau of prisons.
The county budget commission, made up of the auditor, treasurer and prosecutor, took up the sheriff's revenue producing plan this week and had been expected to make a decision Friday. However, Auditor George Tablack said the board needs more information before it passes judgment.
We believe the plan should be implemented.
Wellington sought permission from the state to double bunk, knowing that the county's past problems with jail overcrowding could trigger another complaint. Indeed, during the county's fiscal crisis in 1999, the sheriff's department was under a federal court order relative to the operation of the jail, which is why double bunking was not initiated.
Clean bill of health
Since then, however, the jail's operation has been given a clean bill of health and now the state has given the green light to two county inmates being housed in each cell in certain pods. That would free up space in other pods for the federal prisoners.
Currently there are 40 federal prisoners in the county lockup, and the sheriff is confident the number could be increased to at least 75 -- if not 100.
His confidence stems from Daniel J. O'Donnell's comments to the budget commission that increasing the number of federal inmates would not be a problem and that the new residents could be moved here from other jails by the end of the month.
O'Donnell, supervisor of the the U.S. Marshal's Office in Akron, also said the federal government would be willing to increase to $80 the per-inmate, per-day rate it pays Mahoning County. The county now receives $67.
While double bunking of prisoners is not a new idea, the fact that the sheriff has taken the time to set it up is praiseworthy.
After all, with Mahoning County not only reeling from the national economic downturn, but bracing for major cuts in state allocations, officeholders must find new ways of doing business and operating with declining revenue.
Those departments that generate revenue should explore moneymaking initiatives, while others must find ways to cut costs.
While we recognize the merits of Mahoning County commissioners and other elected officials charting a long-term spending plan for county government, the current crisis demands immediate action.
The sheriff's department has latched on to a good idea. It should be allowed to proceed.