Sheriff: Jail already overcrowded

Published 8:55 am Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons is a hot-button topic, and on a local level, Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith said the county jail should be classified as the same.

When built in 1992, the county jail was designed to house 122 people. As of last Thursday, jail records showed 228 were listed as inmates.

In the rehabbed building behind the county jail, another 40 are housed, and the jail gym is outfitted to house minimum security inmates, Smith said.
And it’s still not enough room, he said.

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Smith said the problem is the state’s inmate recidivism rate is “astronomical” and that there is “no truth in sentencing.” He cited a recent situation where an inmate — sentenced to 10 years in prison for assault and possession of a controlled substance — served one year and seven months before being paroled.

The illustration is nothing new, or nothing that will be changed in the immediate future, Smith said.

“I had another guy who had an 80-year sentence and served three years and five months before he was let go,” he said. “These are nothing. These people that have been released are not prepared to go to work in society, and they are out committing new crimes. Then they are back in the county jail waiting on a new trial.”

Those extra inmates put a tremendous burden on county governments, especially in light of budget cuts to judicial and court systems, district attorney, judge and clerk offices, Smith said.

“We can’t get caught up now,” Smith said. “What it means is that the state keeps turning them loose, then they break into your house, and we catch them. Then they sit in the county jail, and they are on bond for a year before they go to trial as it is.

“Now, they are going to be out on bond committing new crimes for two years before they go to trial.”

Smith said — in an effort to keep inmates off the streets — those that need to be in the penitentiary are now in the county jail, and the money the state sends to house these inmates can’t be used here in the county.

“They won’t give it to us,” he said. “They pay us $1.75 a day to house an inmate. They pay nothing towards the clothing and nothing towards the medical. The county taxpayers pay every penny of that.”

Smith said state troopers bring inmates to the county jail, as does very police office and sheriff’s deputy, “and everyone they arrest that gets charged for a misdemeanor in municipal court to the county jail.”

“But 99.9 percent of the people in the county jails are in there on state offenses,” he said. “Taxpayers have to suffer the burden and pay the same tax twice to hold the same county inmate. They pay the state, because of the state taxes, and now the county is getting the burden.

“We are all going to hit a brick wall,” he said of the future. “You can only accommodate so many inmates before you have to build a new jail.”

The recently implemented “point system” which judges use to determine prison terms puts unrealistic expectations on the local legal system, Smith said.

“For example, you can steal five cars and still not achieve enough points to go to the penitentiary,” Smith said. “You can be caught with possession of drugs 50 times and still not get enough points.

“So I guess the legislation has decriminalized drugs essentially. Now they are creating a new statute, a new list of crimes, that can only be punished by putting them in the county jail. The state is requiring us to do that, but not offering us one penny to house the inmates. I am missing the logic in that.”

Smith said, with the talk about the state prisons being overcrowded, the state is letting inmates out to commit new crimes and it forces agencies at the local level to accept them.

“Seventy percent of the people in my jail cannot make a bond,” Smith said. “They are violating parole because they have a new charge. We knew that when [the state] put them back out there. The state will tell you that they have a 50-percent recidivism rate, but it is closer to 75 percent. They only count people who have a felony that have been convicted within three years. It takes that long sometimes to get to trial.
That number is dramatically under represented.”

“I think it is unfair for the state, because of their short-sightedness and their legislation, to put it off on my county,” he said. “I have shared this opinion with the legislature, but they are not interested in what a Democratic sheriff has to say about Republican legislation.”