3 judges pave way for layoffs, release of prisoners




Three federal judges have cleared the way for a mass layoff of Mahoning County sheriff’s deputies and for closing of the minimum security jail and half of the main jail.

The panel supervised the jail under a consent decree that settled an inmate lawsuit concerning jail crowding. But it has refused to extend that decree.

With the three-year decree having expired Monday, layoff notices will be issued to nearly 100 deputies by the end of this week, with a June 3 effective date, said Maj. James Lewandowski, jail warden.

That figure will be reduced somewhat from the 101 layoffs that had been proposed in March because at least six deputies have quit and taken other jobs since then due to the uncertainty of their employment in the sheriff’s office, he added. The sheriff employs about 300 people.

“If we wish to remain constitutional and maintain a safe environment inside the jail for staff and inmates, we’re going to have to reduce the inmate population commensurate with the remaining available staff,” Lewandowski said.

In an affidavit filed with the federal court on Monday, Lewandowski said the layoff letters must be issued by Friday for layoffs to take effect June 3 if the sheriff’s office is to stay within its $11,811,879 budget for 2010. The sheriff spent $17,348,732 in 2009.

The layoffs and closures would reduce the jail capacity from 602 to 252 inmates, Lewandowski said.

“There will be less room for misdemeanant offenders and non-violent felons from every court in this county,” he said. However, he added that people charged with violent felonies will not be released from jail.

“We’re also exploring our ability to transfer inmates to other county jails in Ohio,” where rates range from $50 to $110 per inmate per day, plus transportation, Lewandowski added.

Another option being considered is releasing inmates from round-the-clock confinement to the day-reporting program, under which inmates perform tasks such as litter pickup and graffiti removal, said Paul J. Gains, county prosecutor.

“The sheriff is going to have to run a constitutional jail, meaning that they cannot be racked and stacked,” Gains said of jail inmates.

“Every elected official has to be cognizant of the fact that these defendants have constitutional rights,” Gains said. “The constitution protects inmates from overcrowding.”

On Tuesday, the three federal judges, Dan Aaron Polster, David D. Dowd Jr. and Alice M. Batchelder, released the ruling, in which they refused to extend the decree, which required that county jail facilities be fully open and staffed.

The three judges said they had no basis to extend the decree, for which the inmates’ lawyers requested a one-year extension and the county requested the one-year extension with modifications.

However, the judges said they would retain jurisdiction to rule later on the inmates’ lawyers’ motion that the county be found in contempt of the decree while it was in effect.

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