City refuses to pay for state-law offenders
The letter was released as county representatives met with the federal judge in Akron.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- City officials say they won't pay Mahoning County to house misdemeanor offenders who have been charged with violating state laws.
"The final report of the Mahoning County Criminal Justice Working Group appears to seek resolution of their federal case by reassigning financial obligations imposed upon them by state law to a nonparty to the federal action, as well as rewriting Ohio's jurisdictional statutes," Jason T. Whitehead, chief of staff to Mayor Jay Wil-liams, wrote Wed-nesday to U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. The judge added the letter to the public record Thursday.
The letter is "probably just some grandstanding and posturing" as county representatives went to Akron on Thursday for a status call with Judge Dowd, said county Commissioner John McNally IV, the working group's chairman.
Judge Dowd has had jurisdiction over county jail issues since inmates won a federal lawsuit in 2005. The working group is a cross-section of city and county representatives who have been developing strategies to improve the jail's operations, including issues of financing, overcrowding and insufficient staffing. Whitehead is a working-group member.
According to the group's calculations, the county needs an additional $3.46 million to open more pods in the county jail and reopen the nearby misdemeanant jail. Both facilities were affected by budget cuts that resulted from the defeat of a 0.5-percent county sales tax in November 2004. The tax expired before another issue was approved by voters in May 2005.
The working group suggests generating the extra money for jail operations by housing federal detainees for about $69 per day, or $3.7 million annually. The city also would be charged $25 per day per prisoner it sends, or $876,000 per year, plus food and medical costs.
While the city and county have negotiated a new boarding agreement, the county sent two bills to Youngstown based on its interpretation of an earlier, expired pact. The county sought $36,037 and $141,556 for the third and fourth quarters of 2005, respectively.
The city disputes those amounts because "state law explicitly imposes upon the county the obligation to pay for the board of individuals charged or convicted under the Ohio Revised Code," Whitehead wrote. " ... [T]he city simply does not owe the county what it is requesting."
The previous agreement also stated that the city would not charge offenders under state statutes to avoid paying for jail space, McNally said. He estimates that 95 percent of the city's recent inmates in the county jail were charged with breaking state laws.
"I'm beginning to wonder why we have city ordinances," McNally said.
McNally doesn't know if the city is charging offenders under state statutes deliberately, but "I think there's a disconnect that needs to be remedied soon," he said.
If the city doesn't pay for its prisoners, the working group may make up for the lost revenue by reserving more space for federal inmates, members wrote to Judge Dowd. That could affect how many beds are available for city defendants.
McNally said he was "not exactly surprised" by the city's letter amid persistent concerns that the county blames the city for some of the jail problems. The working group's report "is not an exercise in blaming people. There's too much of that in government as it is," he said.
All parties had opportunities to review drafts of the final report before it was submitted to Judge Dowd, and no one is saying that the city agrees with every recommendation, McNally said.
Williams did not return a call seeking additional comment.
The city continues to disagree with the emergency release mechanism that the county's Common Pleas Court judges ordered to limit jail population.
"Both the financial responsibility for the boarding of prisoners and the jurisdictional authority to sentence them are established under state law," Whitehead wrote. Common pleas judges lack jurisdiction to enter a release order that affects municipal judges, he added.
Municipal judges may write their own emergency release policy concerning their share of county jail beds, and the working group will file it as an addendum to its report, McNally said.