Fact finder says criminal justice system is broken

The jail has not done a good job of holding only 296 inmates.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Problems at the Mahoning County jail "are the end result of a dysfunctional criminal justice system" says special master overseeing the roughly half-full lockup.
Toledo attorney Vincent M. Nathan, the special master, filed a 22-page report Wednesday in Akron federal court. Nathan is acting as a fact finder for U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr., who is taking steps to make the overcrowded and understaffed jail constitutionally sound. Dowd appointed Nathan after inmates won a class-action lawsuit in March.
Nathan, in his report, is recommending that representatives of all courts, the sheriff and prosecuting attorney, Austintown, Youngstown and Boardman police, auditor and Community Corrections Association form a group to propose and implement solutions.
Nathan said the group, operating under whatever name it chooses, should select a chairman and set a goal to have a written remedial plan in place by the end of the year. Interim reports should be filed by Oct. 1 and Nov. 15.
In an order issued Wednesday, the judge said county Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, with the assistance of lawyers representing commissioners and the sheriff, should make a copy of Nathan's report available to the parties identified in the recommendation to form a group.
Nathan said in his report that he wants to employ two University of Toledo professors to conduct a docket efficiency study. The special master wants to track the time that elapses from arrest to final disposition of cases.
The request is pending with Judge Dowd.
Exploring options
Because Mahoning County cannot build its way out of its jail crowding problem, solutions may include increased reliance on community corrections, maximum efficiency in operation of the criminal justice system and cooperation between police, judges, prosecutors, clerk of courts and so forth, Nathan said, quoting a state prison representative.
Nathan said the county has not been successful in maintaining a cap of 296 inmates. The jail can hold 564 but a lack of funding caused the judge to reduce the population.
As of Aug. 1, the jail had released 1,313 inmates via a 13-step emergency release plan but was consistently above 296 for the last half of June, all of July and into August, Nathan said. As an example, the jail had 316 inmates on June 20; 328 on July 5; 339 on July 20; and 315 on Aug. 5.
Common pleas judges denying release of certain inmates being held in lieu of bond awaiting trial for nonviolent felonies is a contributing factor to the overcrowding, Nathan said. As of June 27, 40 inmates in the nonviolent category remained in jail because their release had been denied by common pleas judges, he said.
Nathan said delays in transferring convicted inmates to state prisons could also be a factor in overcrowding.
He said police chiefs in Youngstown, Austintown and Boardman suggested that the sheriff seek approval from common pleas judges to add another step to the emergency release mechanism. The 14th step would allow inmates to undergo risk assessment and each of the chiefs agreed to commit an investigator to work with the sheriff's department to facilitate the assessment.
The Youngstown municipal judges feel they have been ignored during the process to make the jail constitutionally sound and feel that the emergency inmate release mechanism has left them powerless to operate an effective court, Nathan said. He said the judges repeatedly see defendants who have been granted emergency jail release and the defendants treat the municipal courts with overt contempt.
"I am convinced that the conditions the judges described to me are symptoms of a thoroughly broken criminal justice system that no longer commands the basic respect of criminal defendants who appear before it," Nathan wrote. He said the county court judges, too, are frustrated because they keep seeing the same defendants over and over again and cannot even impose the required minimum penalties in DUI cases.
Nathan said the county judges told him that there is a high "no show" rate for initial preliminary hearings because inmates are released from the jail before their first court appearance.
As with municipal judges, the county judges believe that the credibility of their courts requires that they have some power to impose jail time on carefully selected defendants.
Nathan said he suggested that lower court judges in the county have access to a fixed, though quite limited number of cells. This would permit each court to maintain a modicum of public respect and to shore up its part of the criminal justice system pending long-term resolution of the problems, he said.
The special master said Richard Billak, Community Corrections Association chief executive officer, proposed converting the unused minimum security jail on Commerce Street to a CCA facility. The conversion would add 96 beds and, according to Billak, cost $1.5 million annually.
Nathan said Mahoning County is out of step with other counties when it comes to releasing defendants on their own recognizance, thereby limiting the number of jail inmates.
More than money
Problems that led up to the class-action lawsuit won't be fixed exclusively with money pumped into the jail budget to the exclusion of all other steps necessary to address underlying systemic problems, Nathan said. Only Mahoning County officials can develop the solution to the complex criminal justice problems, he said.
"I was told that this lawsuit is about money and nothing else. That is not the case," Nathan wrote. "Money is an issue but so are divergent political interests and differences of opinion on matters of public policy. Neither the court nor the special master can provide the needed funds, let alone dictate the political and policy priorities that must be part of any lasting solution."
He said the jail problems are the end result of a dysfunctional criminal justice system in which the critical components tend to operate in a vacuum. He said there is no ready means of electronic communication between the jail and the courts and there is a perception that each unit of the system operates independently without concern for the other components.
Judge Dowd asked that objections, reservations or observations to Nathan's report be filed by Aug. 26.

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