New program may ease jail overcrowding, save money in Sullivan County

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   As correctional facilities across the state face problems associated with inmate overcrowding, the Sullivan County Sheriff's Department has developed a new plan that they hope will not only alleviate overcrowding but also save the county money.
   The new program will be called "Day Reporting" and will serve as an alternative sentencing program for misdemeanor offenders, Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson said. "This will help ease the overcrowding situation," he said. "We're working very hard to save money for the tax payers of Sullivan County."
   According to Klyne Lauderback, General Sessions Court Judge in Sullivan County, the program will operate as an alternative way for individuals convicted of minor offenses to serve their jail time without contributing to the overcrowding of the jail. "The idea is to take people who are serving very short sentences and free up those beds," he said. "It's a voluntary program. It's not something they are sentenced into." He added that individuals wishing to participate in the program will be able to apply for acceptance into the program in much the same way that individuals apply for the work release program.
   Acceptance into the program will be determined based on the type of offense, such as failure to appear in court or simple assault, and the length of the sentence assigned to be carried out. "It would depend on the offense and the facts around the case," Lauderback said. "The whole idea is to take these short term sentences out of the jail." Anderson agreed with that description of eligibility for participation in the program. "It's going to be up to the judge, but I think it will come down to a case-by-case basis," he said.
   Anderson stressed that only persons convicted of minor or misdemeanor offenses would be accepted for the program. "We're not going to put dangerous people out there and it's not going to be like an old fashioned chain gang," he said. "Not every prisoner should be locked up. Some of them need to be. ... We've got some out there who have just made mistakes and don't need to be locked up."
   Maj. John Rose, who works with the Sullivan County Jail and developed the idea of the program for the correctional facility, agreed that the selection process for the inmates would be rigorous. "These are the same type of people getting work release right now," Rose said. "What we're saying is that if it's safe to let these people out to work at other places and then come back here at night where we provide all these things, then they are safe enough to come here and work during the day and go home at night."
   Individuals who are accepted into the program will report to work every day at the Sullivan County Detention Center and then spend eight hours working around the county doing cleaning, mowing, construction, litter pickup and other duties, Anderson said. After working eight hours, the individuals will have earned one days credit towards their sentence and will be released to return home.
   Anderson said he hopes to oversee work crews of personnel, and he may use some of the county's reserve officers who volunteer their time to assist in the project.
   In addition to reducing overcrowding in the Sullivan County jail, the program would also help decrease instances of contraband being brought into the facility, according to Rose. "Everytime an inmate leaves the jail we run the risk of them picking up contraband and bringing it back into the jail. They (day reporting inmates) will never be back inside the secure area of the jail," he said.
   The program also saves dollars. Currently, the Sullivan County Detention Center has a capacity of 353 inmates. On Wednesday, there were 379 inmates housed there. Anderson stated that it costs $108,000 to house an inmate for one year. He estimated the jail would be able to save that same amount of money by having 10 inmates in the Day Reporting program.
   The program will be on trial as a pilot program for one year and then will be evaluated for its safety and cost effectiveness. "I can't see how it won't work," he said.
   Carter County Sheriff John Henson said he does not believe a program like the one in Sullivan County would ease overcrowding at the Carter County jail. "Weekenders and DUI offenders are not our problem," he said. "Probation violators are our problem."
   At the April meeting of the Jail Task Force, Henson reported that the jail, certified as a 91 bed detention center, averages more than 200 inmates a day.
   The problem with the Carter County Jail, Henson said, is that the county has just outgrown the facility. "As the population goes up, so does the crime rate," he said.