In 1981 Chattooga County was sued by a group of inmates who filed a class-action lawsuit against the county, claiming the jail was not a humane place to live. U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy agreed with the inmates.
Currently the jail operates under the court order issued by Judge Murphy that says the Chattooga County Jail is only allowed to house 47 inmates and no more than 57 in case of an emergency, and the 57 cap cannot exceed 20 days per year. The average inmate population over the last year has been between 85-90 daily. In 2015 the taxpayers of Chattooga County paid $707,735.50 to other counties to house inmates.
The taxpayers wrote checks to Gordon, Bartow, Murray, Polk, Floyd and Walker Counties just to house our inmates. The jail is an issue that impacts every resident of Chattooga County, and obviously every tax payer. Every county law enforcement agency (Summerville PD and Trion PD) uses the county jail. Housing inmates outside of the county is a huge financial burden on the taxpayers, and will continue to rise.
Read Judge Murphy’s order in it’s entirety here.
According to Sheriff Schrader, “there are many areas concerning housing inmates out of our facility. This too has been an issue for many years and isn’t something new. Of course there are the longer drives for families of the inmates to visit their family. But, I think more importantly in the area of my concern is the more inmate movement creates opportunity for something to happen. Typically, in a jail or prison setting you want less inmate movement to better secure the facility. There is of course the cost of housing out, I am not the one, however, that is responsible to figure if that cost exceeds the cost of building a jail in the long run, it is simply my duty and goal to be as efficient in this area as possible.”
So, what would be the cost to construct a new jail for the taxpayers? The following is an estimate of an actual $10 million 30-year amortization schedule obtained by All On Georgia at a 3.75% interest rate. The actual loan and interest rate would be based on the County’s credit rating. (3.75% is a high interest rate, a lower one would lessen the payment)
A payment on a $10 million-dollar loan would be around $140,000 less than the taxpayers spent last year housing inmates outside of the county.
Inadequate and unsafe jails are problems across the United States, with aging facilities holding an increasing number of people. This is not only a local issue, but one counties across the nation are facing. From 1970 to 2014, the average daily number of inmates held in the roughly 3,000 county jails in America increased four-fold, from 157,000 to 690,000, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which works with government and civil leaders to improve justice systems.
When asked the reasons why there has been an increase in inmates over the last several years, Sheriff Schrader replied, “I believe that we have seen an increase in housing numbers for a few reasons. I am sure that arrests play a part in those numbers. The use of probation as an alternative means of sentencing has also increased, therefore when those individuals violate their terms of probation they typically sit in jail until a court date. Also, Georgia introduced criminal justice reform several years back partly with the intent of lessening the load of inmates sent to prison. This in turn made several crimes that were felonies, punishable by prison, turn into misdemeanors punishable by county jail or probation time.”
When someone violates the terms of their probation a warrant is issued, “once the warrant is issued it becomes my duty to arrest that individual and keep him/her safely in the county jail until a probation hearing can be set. Our district attorney’s office works diligently to help us get those persons on a court calendar as soon as possible,” said Schrader. Probation is not rehabilitation.
Recent studies show that 75 percent of inmates are in for nonviolent offenses. These offenders should be offered programs for mental health and substance abuse issues instead of probation. At any given time, 50-60% of our jail population is probation or parole violators. Chattooga County jail numbers went up after the closure of Northwest Regional Hospital. The lack of drug treatment and mental health facility in Northwest Georgia due to state budget cuts has led to an increase in jail numbers.
It is time for Chattooga to think progressively and move towards a new jail that can also house a treatment center for mental illnesses, non-violent drug and alcohol offenses with the implementation of a drug/accountability court system. Failure to discuss a new jail is a lack of leadership, failure to address the services the community needs a new jail to provide is unacceptable. Addictions and mental illnesses are very prevalent in our community and probably touch every citizen. Jails have become the nation’s largest mental health institutions.
The majority of counties in Georgia offer some form of accountability court as the map below shows. A drug court in Chattooga could also handle DUI/misdemeanor charges as well as juvenile drug, mental health and veteran’s offenses.
Obviously additional costs would be incurred with a new jail, including a larger staff, the actual jail budget spent last year was $1.2 million. That is a lot of taxpayer money going towards a jail that is substandard. It is time Chattooga starts looking ahead towards solutions instead of paying $700,000 for a band aid. Also a new jail could generate revenue by housing inmates from other counties.
In order to ensure our public safety and to abide by the law, building a jail is an inevitable fact citizens of Chattooga County will face or eventually it will be the citizens who pay for a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. Building a new jail is an opportunity for Chattooga’s taxpayers to guard their checkbook and ensure protection from a lawsuit by abiding to Judge Murphy’s order. And with the implementation of a drug/accountability court and rehabilitation center it could be a way to change lives.