Thursday, January 06, 2000

Warren jail again short of cell space

Recent expansion quickly filled up

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — Four years after Warren County officials spent $7.2 million to expand the jail, crowded conditions are forcing them to look for more room.

        With inmate population often over capacity, Sheriff Tom Ariss is looking into a renovation project that could turn some space in the old jail into 24 to 30 new beds for women in about a year.

        Meanwhile, he stands ready to farm out prisoners to jails in other counties and to release sentenced inmates early if space gets too tight.

        Jail space is at such a crunch in neighboring Butler County that the county set up a tent jail last summer to house up to 80 prisoners. Clermont and Clinton counties have been sending their inmates to other counties while larger jails are built there.

        Population growth in Warren, the state's second-fastest growing county, has helped quickly push the jail to capacity. And with any major jail expansion at least two years away, county commissioners are urging judges to help keep overcrowding at bay.

        “I compare it to putting a third lane on Interstate 71. If you build it, they will come and fill it,” said Larry Crisenberry, president of the board of county commissioners. “If we had 400 beds, I'm sure we'd be over capacity too. It's not unique to Warren County. It's all over.”

        Besides security concerns, crowding has forced some communities to pay more to have prisoners housed in other jails. It also also means delays before convicted offenders can serve their sentences, and sometimes leads to early release or probation for criminals to make room for those charged with more-serious crimes.

        On Wednesday, 169 inmates were incarcerated in a jail opened in 1995 for 175 prisoners. That included 13 female inmates, which is the capacity for women.

        The situation was worse a day before.

        Then, if eight inmates in the work-release program hadn't failed to return to jail and four more weren't hospitalized or serving sentences on weekends, the jail would have been seven over its 175-bed capacity.

        That's a typical problem these days, Sheriff Ariss said.

        “It fluctuates up and down, but it's been tight,” he said.

        So far, jail staff has kept from shipping inmates to other counties by juggling prisoners around.

        Three beds in the infirmary are used for overflow if they are vacant. Judges have been told on occasion to have female offenders report at a later date to serve their sentences because the women's side of the jail is full.

        Last month, when female inmates were over capacity 23 of 31 days and hit an all-time high at 22 women on one of them, female prisoners were shifted to the larger orientation area for new inmates and several men were sent to the female quarters.

        “We're constantly rearranging to make it fit. We're moving numbers. Yesterday, we got to a point we didn't have anywhere else to move them,” said Capt. Tim Lamb, who runs the jail.

        Sheriff's officials and county commissioners say lack of planning isn't to blame. Four years ago, jail space more than doubled from 77 beds. At the same time, beds for females increased from eight to 13 — a figure that Capt. Lamb said fell short of the need.

        “I don't think we built it too small. We looked down the road,” Sheriff Ariss said. “It's the rapid growth and the penalties brought down by the court. Crime is up and bed space is needed.”

        Mr. Crisenberry said county officials used state averages in projecting how much new jail space to build in the expansion.

        Warren County has a contract to take Clinton County inmates. However, Sheriff Ariss said he's been forced lately to send them back or turn them away if his jail is filling up.

        Commissioner Pat Arnold South said county officials knew judges would make use of the expanded space as soon as the jail expansion opened in December 1995.

        “Our best guesstimate would have been right as well as wrong,” she said. “The judicial system sees we have capacity and think it's time to crack down on even the lighter offenses ... by throwing them in jail to turn them around.”

        That's why the county needs cooperation from the judges to ward off crowding, she said.

        Jail population seems to be driven by growing court dockets, and it increases when county and municipal courts are in session, Capt. Lamb said. The sheriff's office is required to house prisoners from eight courtrooms in common pleas; county court; and municipal courts in Franklin, Lebanon and Mason.

        Most judges already use devices such as substance abuse programs, community service, probation and home incarceration for nonviolent offenders to aid in rehabilitation and to keep the jail population down, said Judge James Heath of Warren County Court.

        He agrees the onus is on judges to help ward off further problems at the jail.

        “We have dealt with it in the past, and we will deal with it now,” he said. “We don't always like to, but we don't have a choice.”


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