Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Leis presses for new jail

Two commissioners agree costly decision needs to be made soon

By Jane Prendergast and Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County officials are talking about building a new jail, and Sheriff Simon Leis said his new policy of releasing female inmates as well as structural problems in the county's current jails could push the debate his way this time.

Leis has pitched plans for new jails several times during his 16 years in office. But he said Tuesday he thinks he will now find the support necessary to pay for a new jail. He said, it is too soon to talk about what kind of place might be built or how much it could cost.

Women charged with misdemeanors are being kept overnight again at the justice center, the county's largest jail. Until late last week, women charged with anything but the most serious felonies were arrested, photographed and fingerprinted at the jail, released and told to come back on their court date.

That continued for several weeks because Leis said he didn't have enough room for a growing population of women inmates. Officials have attributed the 28 percent jump in women inmates in the last decade to increasing arrests for prostitution and drugs.

But the policy prompted an outcry from city officials, including Mayor Charlie Luken, who said releasing the women hurt the city's efforts to curb crime.

County commissioners, who control county spending, received a report Friday from Assistant County Administrator Eric Stuckey that lists the county's biggest corrections issues. Those include the early release of women, a lack of available beds in other regional jails and lower jail staffing than a decade ago while arrests are increasing.

Commissioners Todd Portune and Phil Heimlich agree a decision to build a new facility needs to come soon - by summer's end, Portune said Tuesday.

"We don't want to let the issue languish,'' he said.

Stuckey recommended the county hire a consultant to study the issue.

Heimlich said if a new jail is necessary, the county would probably have to cut spending elsewhere to pay for it. Still, he said, having adequate jail space is a priority.

"There's nothing more important than having a jail cell for someone who deserves to be locked up for committing a crime,'' Heimlich said.

Leis said in February he'd prefer a 1,500-bed jail that would house both men and women.



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