New county jail rules balance interests of inmates, taxpayers

Mahoning Valley taxpayers will shell out more than $30 million this year to support operations of county sheriff’s departments and county jails. The big business of capturing, incarcerating and rehabilitating criminals stands out as the largest expenditure in the battered government budgets of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.

That’s why county jails should be subject to strict review and maximum efficiencies to ensure that public dollars are well spent and the facilities’ multi-faceted mission is strengthened. Toward those ends, we welcome a set of proposed statewide standards governing everything from the number of showers inmates are entitled to weekly to wholesale improvements in mental-health care for them.

The Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, a panel of Ohio legislators that oversees all state-agency rule changes, is scheduled to vote on the voluminous set of standards March 17. The standards, crafted from a 2012 statewide study of county jails with significant input from sheriffs, should be approved and given an opportunity to prove their value.

At first glance, they hold promise toward decreasing liability of county government (read taxpayers) from multi-million lawsuits while saving cash-strapped counties significant sums in jail-operation costs.

It’s none too soon for action. Uniform standards for county jails have not been updated in 11 years. Revisions are sorely needed to mirror the realities of a soaring inmate population as well as technological innovations that can improve efficiency and accountability.

To their credit, the new standards place a heavy emphasis on limiting liability. According to a Columbus Dispatch report on the new standards last week, Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs Association, acknowledges that much of the motivation behind the updated rules is to lessen the sky-high costs of prisoner lawsuits.

“The lawsuits on jail conditions have become a real problem. Lowering the standards reduces the liability,” Cornwell said

Mahoning County, for example, knows all too well the pain and costs of inmate civil-rights lawsuits, having had to fork out big bucks and institute costly reforms in recent decades resulting from such litigation.

Prisoners’ rights

Among the proposed new rules that directly affect prisoners’ rights are those that will reduce the number of daily meals served on weekends from three to two, limit hot showers to one every other day, reduce visitation time by one-third, electronically monitor visitor conversations, decrease the required size of a jail cell from 70 square feet to 48 square feet, require cleaning of mattresses monthly instead of weekly and increase access to mental-health care and suicide prevention counseling.

Most of those plans clearly carry significant cost cuts. Savings in hot water alone should be princely. They also lessen some of the freedoms and privileges of county-jail residents. One must remember, after all, that inmates are convicted criminals and are in jail in part as punishment. They therefore do not deserve Hilton Hotel quality care. At the same time, officially lowering the bar on privileges will lessen the plausibility of successful civil-rights challenges.

Of course, no one wants prisoners to endure undue harsh suffering. Indeed the new standards for the first time expressly outlaw physical punishment of inmates in any form. But at the same time, the recommendations for change based on the wisdom and day-to-day experience of county sheriffs offer hope for a double whammy of more productive jail operations for Ohio counties and less pain in the pocketbook for Ohio taxpayers.

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