Ever since voters rejected two separate proposals to raise Hamilton County’s sales tax and build a new jail, Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. and county commissioners have complained about how overcrowding at local jails has led to releasing some non-violent offenders early.
Last year county officials finally closed the aging Queensgate jail, one of four detention facilities it operated, eliminating 822 beds from the local system.
A former warehouse, the Queensgate site was a poor fit as a jail. Prisoners were kept in large open areas on cots in each of the building’s levels, an antiquated design that Leis and other county officials said was dangerous for both prisoners and deputies. When mealtime came, prisoners had to be moved by marching up and down narrow staircases, posing a further safety threat.
When Hamilton County began using the Queensgate space for lower-level offenders in 1992, state corrections officials allowed the arrangement only because it was supposed to be temporary and close by 1999.
But county government at the time, controlled by Republicans, decided that building new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals was more important than erecting a new detention facility.
When a bipartisan county commission finally sought a sales tax increase to build a jail, in 2006 and again in 2007, voters were stung by stadium cost overruns and broken promises about other riverfront development and weren’t in such a giving mood.
With Queensgate’s closing, Hamilton County has about 2,200 beds left in its system; the majority (about 1,240) are at downtown’s Justice Center.
Now some county officials are complaining that the River City Correctional Center in Camp Washington often sits partially empty while non-violent offenders are turned away from the Justice Center when there’s no space available for them.
They’re asking that more be sent to River City, which has regularly had about a 17 percent vacancy rate.
The problem with that suggestion, however, is it doesn’t comply with Ohio law and doesn’t get to the heart of Hamilton County’s overcrowding problem.
River City is operated by the state and has a mission that’s highly specialized. It’s one of 18 state facilities designed for non-violent felony offenders who participate in a rugged, boot camp-like environment and stay in barracks. Participants are given tasks to perform during their stay and awaken sharply at 5:30 a.m. every day. They also receive drug and alcohol treatment while there, a process that usually lasts about six months.
By comparison, most of Hamilton County’s inmates haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet.
Generally, the county’s inmates fall into one of four categories: people serving short sentences for misdemeanors, people accused of a felony and held on bond while awaiting trial, people convicted of a felony and awaiting sentencing and transfer to a state facility and people who have served a sentence for a felony but have violated probation and are awaiting a hearing.
“We can’t take the people from the Justice Center and send them over there unless there’s a change in state law,” says Steven Goodin, a local attorney who sits on River City’s governing board. “I do not blame people for asking this question because, on the surface, it appears maddening that there’s empty beds at one facility while they’re turning people away at another facility.”
River City personnel agree with county officials that local judges need to make more frequent use of the facility when doling out sentences and have began a marketing effort to acquaint newer judges with the options available there.
Even if judges begin using River City more often, though, it probably won’t put much of a dent in the number of inmates released early by Hamilton County. Statistics indicate that the county’s overcrowding problems are due to other factors.
Most of the people held in Hamilton County’s jails are there waiting for trial. On a typical day earlier this month, 756 out of 1,240 county inmates were people waiting for trial. More shockingly, 278 of those had been waiting for more than three months and 81 had been cooling their heels for more than six months.
Some had been waiting for two years. That’s right, two years.
Part of the problem, say defense attorneys, is that judges routinely set bond amounts that are too high. Also, critics allege more non-violent offenders could be held on home detention with electronic monitoring by ankle bracelets while awaiting trial, freeing up space for the most dangerous suspects.
Before Queensgate’s closing, Hamilton County’s jail system was ranked one of the 25 largest county systems in the nation. After the closing, the county still has about 2,200 beds available, which is comparable to other large urban counties in Ohio on a per capita basis.
County Commission President David Pepper is working with a panel consisting of Leis, the county prosecutor, judges and others to review the criminal justice system and streamline the process. Their work can’t get done soon enough.
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