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Consent decree sought by judge



Published: Sat, January 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The $4 million carry-over into 2005 is for unpaid bills, the sheriff said.

YOUNGSTOWN -- A federal judge wants both sides in a class-action lawsuit over conditions at the Mahoning County jail to see if they can reach a consent decree by the end of the month.

U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr., in an order filed Friday, said it is still unclear to him if county commissioners will increase funding in 2005 for operation of the jail, including the misdemeanant facility, so as to eliminate the need for locking down inmates 23 hours a day.

Instead of closing arguments after trial last month, Judge Dowd asked that the county, represented by Columbus lawyers Daniel T. Downey and Mark Landes, submit a report on the sheriff's department's financial situation for 2005.

Downey and Landes submitted a report to Judge Dowd saying that Mahoning County commissioners voted Dec. 30 to make a $3.11 million temporary allocation to the sheriff's department, enough to have 173 deputies on staff. While that is 10 more than the low point in November, it is the same number assigned to the jail at the time of the trial.

In their response to the report this week, the inmates' Akron lawyers, Robert Armbruster and Thomas Kelley, said the 173 figure is misleading because it was shown at trial that many deputies are posted outside the jail.

Also, the lawyers said the county had a $4 million carry-over into 2005 -- a carryover at a time when Sheriff Randall A. Wellington was in desperate need of additional funds to properly run his department.

Wellington, however, said that Auditor George Tablack addressed the carry-over at a meeting this week, saying the $4 million was carried over from unpaid bills from last year. It wasn't available for other spending.

Unless both sides can reach and submit a proposed consent decree by Jan. 31, Judge Dowd wants them to file briefs supporting their respective positions by Feb. 14. The judge suggested that the briefs include fact findings keyed to the transcript of the trial testimony.

Testimony

At trial, Judge Dowd heard testimony from deputies, inmates, experts in corrections facilities, the jail maintenance supervisor, the current and former warden and others. The plaintiffs argued that backed-up toilets expose locked-down inmates to hepatitis.

The judge said in his order Friday that the briefs should be limited to whether the court should find that operation of the jail violates inmates' civil rights. He said if he determines rights are being violated, he will then address the applicable remedy.

Armbruster and Kelley filed the class-action lawsuit in November 2003. The lawyers contend the jail is understaffed, which leads to lock-downs -- prolonged periods of time in which inmates remain confined to their cells.

In their response to last month's $3.11 million temporary appropriation, Armbruster and Kelley said they continue to receive letters from inmates about lock-downs at the jail.

"The defendants continue to operate the jail as they have in the past two years," the Akron lawyers said. "Apparently no additional funds will be available for many months."

Taxes

When a half-cent sales tax failed last November, Wellington had planned to lay off 120 deputies to cut his $13 million budget by roughly $6 million. He said if he doesn't get a $13 million budget appropriation for 2005, layoffs will take place.

Last month, the three-member board of county commissioners -- two of whom would finish their terms at month's end -- did not impose the sales tax after holding two public hearings on the matter. The tax generates $13 million to $14 million annually.

Imposing the sale tax or placing the tax on the May 3 ballot may be an issue with the new board, Downey and Landes said in their report to Judge Dowd.

The county's lawyers said the process of holding public hearings on the tax need not be repeated if the new board is inclined to impose the tax or put it on the ballot after analyzing the county's budget needs. They said the board is in the process of scheduling public budget hearings for 2005 appropriations that will likely begin Wednesday.

Armbruster and Kelley, meanwhile, allege the jail is unsafe for inmates and deputies alike. They won a similar lawsuit in the early 1990s that established a staff-to-inmate ratio.

The consent decree expired in November 2001. It required the release of inmates if the jail population exceeded the number of guards required for each cell area.




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