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Adventures on the Jail Committee

Claude Paquin's picture

Some people are suspicious, even envious, whenever they realize someone received some sort of appointment which they fantasize might have brought them prestige, influence or money. Conspiracy theorists may experience relief — or if they are sufficiently neurotic, disbelief — from learning about my recent Jail Committee experience.

How It Got Started

In late January I unexpectedly received in the mail a letter on Fayette County stationery, signed by the then newly-appointed chairman of the Board of Commissioners, Steve Brown.

I learned from it that the county wished to examine its options about what to do with the one-third of the old county jail that was still standing, empty and unused, next to the newer jail and to the Sheriff’s Office which occupies the other, renovated two thirds. I was invited to participate in a Jail Committee that was being formed for that purpose and to phone my response to this invitation to the County Clerk.

Considering my experience with construction, demolition and jail buildings, it would have been easy for me to express my regrets about my inability to make a meaningful contribution, the more so because of my low opinion of committees’ effectiveness in general, the vague nature of the committee, the unknown demands on my time, the obvious lack of compensation, and a host of factors.

I still don’t know how I attracted Steve Brown’s attention on this, and I could think of a lot of reasons to say no.

But there were reasons to say yes. This is the first time in my entire life I have been asked to help out a unit of our government. I am retired and thus have time to spare that does not cut into the production of extra income. And I attended Emory Law School which prides itself in instilling in its graduates a sense of public service.

Moreover I might learn something interesting about the jail, meet interesting people on the committee, and perhaps make a contribution by analyzing any financial options involved, an area of expertise for me, or writing a decent report along the way: lawyers are usually fairly good at preparing memos and reports.

Thus I phoned the County Clerk and told him that even though I didn’t feel terribly well qualified and would not be offended if it turned out my services were deemed unnecessary, I would accept the appointment.

My comments apparently did not discourage the appointing power, which I think turned out to be Steve Brown himself, from putting me on the committee — by then more pompously renamed the Citizens Committee on Jail Infrastructure — and inviting me to its first meeting.

As it turned out, Steve Brown ended up chairing the committee and directing its work. In preparation for the first meeting he had county officials supply us with a list of fellow committee members and assorted documents about the old county jail and previously considered options on what to do about that old jail.

The Problem with the Jail

What do you do with an older yet still serviceable building that once served as a jail and is right next to the current jail and sheriff’s office?

The answer can largely depend on whether you have any money to do something with it, be it to renovate it or tear it down, with or without replacing it with a new better building.

If money is not the problem, then the focus ought to be on what the county’s needs are, currently or in the immediate future, for expanding the current jail. Just as Fayette County has recently learned it is not smart to build a school without having students to put in it, the same can be said for a jail and its involuntary guests.

Thus, it is a broad problem. Our committee learned along the way that it might cost roughly $1 million to renovate what’s left of the old jail, or $10 million to replace it with a more modern and efficient unit. (Then it would have to be serviced and staffed.)

It should be understood, by the way, that the county jail consists of separate pods, or units. There can be one pod for female prisoners; one pod, with cells, for the more dangerous inmates; and one pod for the nonviolent or non-threatening inmates, who share a common room and a dormitory. There’s also an infirmary.

The more flexibility the sheriff can have in allocating space among prisoners, the better it is. It is, after all, his responsibility to keep the jail safe for everyone in it.

So that’s the sort of thing one learns from serving on this type of committee. That does not solve the problem, but it helps our understanding.

Do We Need More Jail Space?

It turned out that the Jail Committee was more of a sounding board for County Commission Chairman Brown than the sort of committee where the members receive information, argue, and vote. There never was a vote called about anything, which as it turns out was probably good.

Until July 1, 2012, stealing property worth more than $500 could earn the thief a felony conviction with a stay in a state prison, while stealing less could bring a misdemeanor conviction with a stay of up to one year in the county jail. You had to steal more than $500 to end up a guest of the state. On July 1, 2012, the $500 amount was changed to $1,500, and thus the fear arose we might have more guests avoiding a promotion to a state prison and staying in our county jail, and thus might need to expand our county jail.

This is where having a lawyer (like me) on the committee might have proven helpful.

It turns out, after I did some research, that our Georgia legislature raised that amount at the same time it decided to stop the expensive process of putting more and more nonviolent people in prison, and to devote funding instead to expanding its probation and supervision services.

Some legislators may have seen merit in making a greater effort at rehabilitation, and some may have simply liked the idea of saving money, but either way they reached the same conclusion.

The idea was not, as argued or feared by some, to slough off a bunch of prisoners on the counties so that their housing costs would be picked up by county taxpayers instead of the state. Some people entertain nasty ideas about everything right off the bat.

Sure enough, our own Fayette jail statistics are not yet showing a measurable increase in inmates. In 2012 we averaged 272 inmates daily in a jail that can hold 384, plus 20 in the infirmary. On average they stay 24 days. The averages were 291 in 2010 and 292 in 2011.

Keep in mind that the number of inmates fluctuates day by day, and that the sheriff has to be ready for the highest number that may come in, as he is not free to turn down guests because the hotel is full. Sooner or later, we will have to expand that hotel, just as sooner or later the school board’s empty schools might fill up, so it’s all a matter of timing.

Another discovery I came to make from serving on this committee, after doing some research, was that the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) publishes, on its website, a weekly Friday Report which shows the number of people in our Georgia prisons, and the number of people in our county jails (not individually by county but for the state as a whole). These reports, which offer details about the sex, age, race and types of crime of the inmates, are truly fascinating.

Over many months now, the Georgia inmate population has indeed been trending down. Our state prisons housed 61,482 inmates on July 27, 2012, and 58,324 on July 19, 2013; statewide our county jails held 38,372 inmates in June 2012, and 36,584 (77.7 percent of their bed capacity) in June 2013. That’s a one-year decrease of 5 percent for each. That is good news for the taxpayers, and it may be a sign the criminal justice reforms undertaken by our Georgia legislature are working.

Some people have entertained the notion that if we built extra jail space we could possibly offset part of the cost by renting out some of our spare space to nearby counties with an overflow of inmates. But when inmate counts are going mostly down all across the state, how likely is the demand for that? As the sheriff bears some responsibility for the medical needs of inmates, it becomes easy to see that trying to turn a jail into a business might not be a good idea.

Who Served on the Jail Committee

The media initially picked up the names of the Jail Committee members, and the county supplied me later with the list, which included Sheriff Barry Babb; Tommy Turner and Scott Bradshaw, both described as local businessmen; Bernie McMullen, former Peachtree City manager; Chuck Watkins, former county water committee chairman; Bob Ross, photographer; Bess Stevens; and Nova Brown.

It would be up to Steve Brown to explain why he chose these individuals. At the outset I had no idea who might serve with me on the committee, and mere names don’t tell you much unless an individual happens to be an acquaintance or has somehow been in the news.

I did pick up somewhere that one of our members was the head of the Fayette Tea Party; a conversation with another member brought out that she had a master’s degree in Criminal Justice.

As it turned out, our committee had the benefit of the presence of three members of the Sheriff’s Department: the sheriff himself and two captains (Anthony Rhodes and Charlie Cowart) in charge of jail operations.

Their comments were most useful to our understanding of many aspects of jail operations and of the history that brought us to current conditions. As an aside, I might tell you that the physical size of these two captains would easily send to prisoners a message of don’t mess with me.

Meetings of the Jail Committee

Steve Brown called our first meeting for the evening of March 5, and we eventually had a jail visit (March 27) and one more meeting (April 3), where a representative of the architectural firm of Mallett Consulting, Inc. provided information that supplemented two previous professional reports we were given to read about options for the jail.

Our meetings were skillfully run by Steve Brown, and everyone had a fair opportunity to speak and present his views.

I personally sent written memos (by email) to my fellow committee members on the results of my research on criminal justice reform and jail populations, and on the proper use of population statistics to forecast space needs, be they for schools or jails, as increases in retirees attracted by the charms of Peachtree City may swell the overall population but don’t increase the demand for either jails or schools. I was able to expand on that at the meetings.

You can be sure that suggestions were made, but not by me, that we avoid jail expenses by keeping criminals out of Fayette County, either by warning signs or strategically placed patrol cars at the county line, with either a decoy or live patrolman; or that we hire retired (senior) judges to try people in our county jail sooner and get them out of there sooner. Upon reflection, that made the meetings more interesting.

You can sense the frustration of taxpayers who resent shelling out money for crime, though they might be the same people who contribute to sports figures’ multi-million-dollar salaries and support a hugely expensive defense system which the Pentagon does not even want.

Where We Go from Here

As it seems the county does not have the money and the old jail presents no imminent threat or hazard, I suspect that, for a while at least, nothing will happen.

Meanwhile, we can watch what’s happening to our jail population, the size of which depends in part on whether our judges embrace the criminal justice reforms that keep nonviolent people out of jail but under close supervision, working and supporting their family, or stick to the old harsh ways.

I am not unhappy to have been given the opportunity to present a different and more positive perspective on the whole issue of jailing people. Once in a while our elected officials need to hear from the citizens who don’t join the howling hanging mobs, and I hope those who heard from me came to appreciate the calming effect of scientific research and sober reflection.

[A Fayette County resident, Claude Y. Paquin is retired lawyer and actuary who first met Steve Brown while making a scholarly presentation, in July 2000, to a large citizens group interested in financing the construction of new public schools with new taxes.]

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