Video arraignments’ return alleviates worry about safety

The 1981 killing of Mahoning County Sheriff’s Deputy Sonny Litch as he was transporting a prisoner from the county jail to the courthouse remains a vivid reminder of the danger inherent in taking inmates out of the confines of a lockup.

As Youngstown Police Chief Rod Foley warned in January of this year, city and county officials would be “just rolling the dice” and “just waiting for a disaster to happen” if video arraignments from the county jail were discontinued.

The warning was prompted by the Sheriff Randall Wellington’s announcement that video arraignments of inmates would end Feb. 6 because of a budget shortfall.

The sheriff said he needed to reassign the two deputies to other jail duties. There were 37 deputies laid off at the time and Wellington was planning on bringing back 23. All of them were needed to run the jail in accordance the minimum staffing standards established by the federal court.

The discontinuation of video arraignments prompted the city municipal judges to establish a system whereby prisoners are transported by police officers to and from the county jail and placed in holding cells on the fifth floor of the police department. They are arraigned via video and then taken back to the county jail.

Fortunately, there haven’t been any instances of police officers being in harm’s way.

There was a collective sigh of relief earlier this month when the sheriff announced that as of Nov. 2, inmates who are Youngstown Municipal Court defendants were again being arraigned by video from the county jail.

“Anytime that you reduce movement of prisoners outside the facility, it benefits the safety of the officers and the community,” said Maj. Alki Santamas of the sheriff’s department. “By conducting video arraignments in the facility, we’re able to limit that movement.”

They are held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays beginning at 1:30 p.m.

The resumption was made possible by the recall of all the deputies who were on lay off because of the department’s budget woes. The commissioners were unable to allocate all the money requested by the sheriff due to an overall revenue shortfall brought on by the national recession and the reduction in state funding through the Local Government Fund. But retirements in the sheriff’s department have freed up funds to recall the laid off deputies.

In addition, the $80-per-inmate fee paid by Youngstown, Canfield, Struthers and Sebring is helping defray the costs of housing prisoners charged under local ordinances.

Budget hearings

The county commissioners are holding budget hearings with department heads, and Wellington, who will be leaving office in January, has requested $22.7 million, which is $4.8 million more than what was allocated this year.

The budget is designed to boost the force by 57 deputies, which would allow Wellington’s successor, Jerry Greene, to completely open the main jail and to reopen the minimum-security lockup.

During his campaign for sheriff, Greene, director of support services at the county jail, made it clear that the full staffing of the jail and the reopening of the misdemeanant facility would be prioritiesy.

Likewise, commissioner-elect David Ditzler, who will succeed Commissioner John A. McNally IV, who chose not to seek re-election, made it clear during the campaign that fully funding the sheriff’s department will be a priority.

In the end, it’s about public safety, and it now appears the battles of past between the sheriff and the commissioners — the federal courts got involved after inmates sued because of overcrowding in the jail — are over.

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