Butler County reopens shuttered jail to prepare for new law

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones has reopened the Court Street Jail in Hamilton to house more contract inmates and felony five offenders that judges can no longer send to prison.

A new state law took effect July 1 that requires Ohio’s 10 largest counties — Butler County is No. 7 — to stop sending non-violent felony offenders who commit low level crimes to prison, with the idea that lasting rehabilitation is more likely to occur at the local level than in state prisons.

FIRST REPORT: New Ohio prison law could cost Butler County $4 million

Typical felony five offenses are: felony non support of dependents; theft; possession of drugs; breaking and entering and receiving stolen property.

Originally county officials estimated the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP) program could cost as much as $3.8 million a year to keep scofflaws here, but now Butler County Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison said they are anticipating housing about 160 people in jail a year at a cost of about $1.3 million. The $1.2 million grant they got from the state will cover about $619,175 — only half the money can used housing prisoners.

“It’ll still cost the county a lot of money to house these people,” Gilkison said.

Butler County Administrator Charlie Young said while the county has prepared for this new law, the state’s action is yet another example of the state fixing its financial woes with local money.

“It is another example of the state pushing their problems, if you will, down to the local units of government and not funding it sufficiently,” Young said. “But this county is prepared.”

Butler County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Tony Dwyer said they didn’t just open Court Street for the TCAP inmates. The sheriff’s office, he said, has more contract inmates than they normally do. On Monday there were 592 local inmates and 434 contracted prisoners. The county has agreements to house prisoners on a regular basis with Pike County, the U.S. Marshal Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those entities pay $60, $58 and $58.78 per bunk per day, respectively.

Butler County Sheriff’s Major Mike Craft said the rates vary — the per diem cost in memorandum of understanding the county has with the state is $72 — for outside law enforcement agencies, it all depends how long the person or people will be there. He said they can’t open a whole floor at the Court Street Jail for just a couple inmates.

The sheriff’s office pulled in almost $8.6 million last year housing guest prisoners and has budgeted $7 million for next year. Opening the Court Street facility necessitated hiring additional staff but staffing levels in detention are always a “moving target.”

Dwyer said they regularly need to make adjustments — using full-and-part-time staff and overtime — to manage the jail facilities, based on the current population and who might be coming down the pike.

“Literally we have to look at staffing and what can do and what we can’t do and we ramp up and we’re predicting, it’s a moving target,” Dwyer said.

An old estimate, before jail renovations were done several years ago, was about $500,000 to re-open Court Street Jail. Craft said he couldn’t put an exact cost on re-opening the old jail now, but it wasn’t much because the bunks, bars and other basics were already there. He said the building really just needed a “good bath” so they used maintenance staff and inmates to do the sprucing.

The main jail has a capacity of 848 inmates but the sheriff also houses overflow offenders at the Resolutions facility — it holds about 170 offenders — on Second Street and the Court Street jail that can handle 150 inmates. Half the Court Street facility is full right now. Craft said he is also looking at another six-month contract for 75 inmates.

He said it remains to be seen how TCAP might bite into their revenue-making enterprise with outside contracts.

“We think we have a strategy and a plan in place to handle either way it goes, that we’ll be able to handle this and absorb this. But we don’t know which way that’s going to be,” Craft said. “So we have to prepare for not a lot of inmates, might as well build up the revenue for the county or a lot of inmates and maybe we will lose some, we don’t know that.

Part of the TCAP equation is the new ankle monitoring program. It just started a couple weeks ago and the sheriff’s office is keeping tabs on five people that way now. To start they plan on using 20 monitors but will expand.

Katrina Wilson, coordinator for Butler-Warren Reentry Coalition, said previously a program like this is needed.

“Some believe introducing this type of program will permit violent offenders to ‘fall through the cracks’ and land back in our community. I don’t believe by implementing this program makes our communities less safe. In fact, I believe just the opposite,” Wilson said. “If we do not find a fix to the problem of over-committing low level, non-violent offenders, we will not have room in our jails and prisons for violent offenders who pose real threats to society.”

The local judges however aren’t quite seeing it that way. Butler County Common Pleas Judge Keith Spaeth, who runs the felony drug court, said the new law takes the teeth out of sentencing, so judges will lose leverage in getting criminals to rehabilitate themselves.

“The only way to force people into treatment, into community corrections, is to have the leverage, the threat of prison,” the judge said. “So it’s a carrot and a stick. If you want judges to force people into drug treatment and into mental health treatment and into compliance, then you have to give them the stick to be able to persuade people to do those things.”

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