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Steve Ahillen
By Steve Ahillen March 10, 2012

Doors open on jail plan

Then-Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam was posed a question by the Tennessee Newspaper Network in its project, called "Tennessee's Governors Race: Compare the Candidates”, published prior to the 2010 elections:

"Do you support or oppose stronger penalties in state law - including mandatory jail terms - for people convicted of crimes involving guns?”

He said he did support stronger penalties; and as part of the answer he added: "We should review in detail the factors driving the costs of incarceration and look for smarter, more cost-effective systems and procedures.”

That sounded like a campaign promise to us, so we asked the governor's office if anything had been done about driving down the costs of incarceration.

Turns out some steps have been put in motion on this, although at least one would involve spending more - not less - on housing prisoners.

For starters, the governor is behind a bill that would involve moving much of the duties of the Board of Probation and Parole (BOPP) to the Department of Correction (DOC). In the Fiscal Note on the bill, the estimate is it will save the state $714,800. The savings would come from reductions in the BOPP. According to an emailed response to our questions from the governor's office: "The legislation increases efficiency and cost effectiveness … in state government and provides greater public safety by ensuring seamless supervision of adult offenders from incarceration to the end of supervision by the same department.”

A much bigger production is the Public Safety Plan announced by the governor in January. The plan is the culmination of months of work among multiple state agencies to deal with various aspects of public safety. The list of measures includes these two: "1. expanding access to drug treatment courts across the state for serious meth and prescription drug abusers and 2. focusing more state drug treatment court funds for courts serving non-violent defendants who would otherwise be incarcerated at the state"s expense (making room for more serious offenders).”

Let's go into a little background on this.

The governor's office in a Jan. 12 emailed response to our question said that "drug abuse and trafficking drive Tennessee's crime rate, and targeted to the right offenders, effective drug treatment courts can break the cycle of addiction and crime AND save the state and local communities incarceration costs.”

A number of county jails, especially in East Tennessee, are busting at the seams. Rural Campbell County, for example, has a 90-bed unit that held 196 prisoners according to the December figures - the latest available on the Tennessee Department of Correction website. Nearby Anderson County holds 226 units but it housed 308 prisoners in December. Both counties have huge drug problems.

Determining how many of those prisoners are incarcerated because of drugs is a slippery slope, but it is safe to say the percentage is large. The reason it's hard to calculate is that in addition to those housed for straight drug crimes - sales, possession, etc. – many are there because of robbery, assault and prostitution, which all are often directly related to drug abuse but not listed as such.

Most sheriffs contacted about drugs' effects on the prison population echo the comments of Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnagin: "I have about 320 people in a jail today that was built for 225. If you take out the people who are in jail for drugs, we wouldn't have but about 40 or 50. That's not just here. That's all across the country.”

The conservative estimate at the cost of housing one county jail prisoner for one day is $35. The puts the cost at $13,000 plus per prisoner per year. If that prisoner moves to a state facility the cost jumps to $23,000 per year, with a daily per-prisoner estimate of $64.83.

So, the logical answer to greatly cutting into jail cost is to find other ways to deal with drug abusers.

Drug courts are a fairly new development in Tennessee. Knox County Drug Court, one of the state's oldest, started in 1999. Candidates must plead guilty to the charges and volunteer for the program, and law enforcement must approve them for the court. The prisoners can still be ordered to jail, but every attempt will first be made to get the person off drugs through treatment and support -- and keep them out of jail.

Once abusers are in the program, there is still no guarantee they'll get better. In Knox County's court, for example, only around a quarter of the participants through the past 12 years have graduated.

Haslam  is also backing a plan to close Taft Youth Development Center, called a "hardware-secure residential facility” for delinquent youth on the state"s web site, that  could save the state $4.4 million annually.The plan is drawing some criticism, this time from supporters of the facility.

Amid all of this, another part of the governor's safety plan could end up costing counties almost $9 million collectively. Haslam said he wants to create mandatory minimum sentences for repeat domestic offenders. The measure would put second-time offenders behind bars at least 45 days and three-or-more time offenders at least 120 days. Another part of the plan calls for tougher penalties for gang-related felonies. Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, told the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville that the state is mulling over how to ease the financial burden on counties.

We asked the governor's office which in its response noted: "We believe the deterrent factor of mandatory jail time will result in fewer repeat offenders in the future and decreased costs.” The office also stated: "The estimated cost of the governor's domestic violence proposal is about $8.7 million. Of that, 10 percent, or about $870,000, is included in the proposed budget. The governor also has $36 million in his budget proposal for counties housing inmates convicted under state law.”

The $36 million to which the office refers is an increase from the overall amount the state paid to county jails. This gets a little more complicated but here goes: The state is paying an estimated $148,652,800 to counties to cover the expense of housing state felons in local jails and for other statutorily authorized felony expenses. Haslam"s budget plan is showing a recommended base of $113,952,800 for 2012-13, plus $36,780,000 for cost increases for a total of $150,732,000. That would indicate an overall increase of about $2.1 million from $148,652,800 to $150,732,000.

Keep in mind that nothing in Haslam's plan is done. The BOPP move has to be voted on by both houses. The expanding role of drug courts might be a little closer to getting here .The governor's press secretary, Dave Smith, said Feb. 14 that he has been advised by the Department of Safety that the drug court measures will be "implemented soon.” And, the governor's budget has not yet been approved.

We"ll give it an In the Works for now.

Our Sources

Tennessee Department of Correction: Jails Summary Report "Compare the Candidates”

Tennessee General Assembly: SB2248 HB 2386

Tennessee General Assemble Fiscal Note Committee: Fiscal Note HB 2386 - SB2248

Tennessee Government: "Public Safety Action Plan”

Knoxville News Sentinel: "Room, Board and Pills: Public Pays Heavy Price To Jail Addicts”

Knoxville News Sentinel: "Knoxville Drug Court Offers Alternative for Offenders”

Tennessee Government: "The Budget”, page 483 "Youth Development Centers”

Chattanooga Times Free Press: "Bipartisan Group Blasts Taft Youth Development Center Closure”

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