By PETER H. MILLIKEN
The city is preparing to take legal action if Mahoning County releases any misdemeanor prisoners sentenced to the county jail by municipal judges against the judges’ wishes.
“We have a jail that is supposed to house the people that need to be there. The sheriff is under a statutory obligation to house every single prisoner, and if he’s going to be releasing prisoners, then he’s going to face a lawsuit,” said Judge Elizabeth Kobly, presiding municipal court judge.
Judge Kobly said the city law department is preparing to file a mandamus action at the Ohio Supreme Court to force Sheriff Randall A. Wellington and the county commissioners to meet their obligation to house defendants sentenced to jail by judges in the county.
She said she’d likely also summon the sheriff to contempt-of-court hearings if he releases inmates without her permission.
In addition to those strategies, Iris Torres Guglucello, city law director, said her department also is considering seeking a declaratory judgment in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court specifying the county’s obligation to house inmates.
“We use alternative sentences whenever we can ... But the reality is some people just need to be in jail,” Judge Kobly said. The threat of a jail term is the only available hammer to ensure that defendants comply with alternative sentences, such as day-reporting work detail or electronically monitored house arrest, she said.
Jail space is needed now more than ever as the prime summer crime season will soon be here, the judge added.
The judge said a jail term may be the only way to get the attention of a defendant, such as the man she jailed Tuesday for an 18th driving-under-license- suspension conviction.
Defendants lose respect for the justice system when the courts lack the ability to jail them under bench warrants for failure to appear in court, Guglucello said.
The pronouncements from Guglucello and Judge Kobly came the day after a panel of three federal judges declined to extend its three-year supervision of the county jail under a consent decree that settled an inmate lawsuit concerning jail crowding. That decree, which expired Monday, required that the jail be fully open and staffed.
“The sheriff always has and always will recognize and support the judges’ need to incarcerate,” said Maj. James Lewandowski, jail warden. “However, the sheriff can’t spend money he doesn’t have, nor staff a jail when he doesn’t have the deputies to do so.”
Faced with a recession-induced financial crisis, the county closed its minimum security jail as an overnight facility on Tuesday and plans to mail nearly 100 notices to sheriff’s department employees on Friday, notifying them of their layoff, effective June 6, Lewandowski said.
As it prepares to close half of the main jail, the county will gradually phase down its main jail population between now and then, Lewandowski said.
The sheriff’s department has begun notifying the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to remove 47 federal inmates from the county jail by June 6, he added.
“I see us reaching a point where we’re going to have to make some serious decisions about staffing in our own office and budget decisions in other areas if we have to continue to operate a jail at a level we cannot afford,” said county Commissioner John A. McNally IV.
“If we have to keep a jail operating above a level that we can afford right now, I think the entire budget is open for review again,” he added. “At some point in time, we are going to cripple county operations.”
“Right now, we only have $51 million to spend. We cannot afford to have a jail at full capacity and full staffing and continue to do and fund the other mandated areas of county government,” McNally concluded.