Jail overcrowding creates dilemma for Warren County police

The 280-bed Warren County Jail is so overcrowded that local law enforcement officials say they are sitting on hundreds of arrest warrants, and in some cases, not making arrests because there’s not enough room to house more offenders.

Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims and police chiefs from across the county met with county commissioners Tuesday to discuss the ongoing issue. Commissioners agreed to reconvene the jail advisory committee to look into the cause and possible solutions to the problem.

In just about every month last year there were at least a handful of days when the jail was at capacity, Sims said. The sheriff presented charts that showed the jail was over capacity for 24 days in June, 27 days in July and 28 days in August. July 17, 2012 had the most overflow inmates with 305.

Police officials said a perfect storm of increased drug use, new laws that prevent judges from sending felons to prison in some cases and serial repeat offenders has exacerbated the situation.

Sims said there are a few options available when the jail is at capacity — though none of them were ideal. One option is to release low-level violent offenders, and another is to send out a call to arresting agencies that the jail is full, which stops the flow at the intake level.

“We are back now in that situation where police officers have to make decisions about arresting somebody because of jail space or no jail space. I don’t think any of us agree that’s a good thing for our community,” Sims said. “I can say with utmost certainty, we have used every available space in our jail. There is nowhere else to throw bunks.”

The county used to send overflow inmates to the Butler County Jail at a cost of about $1.2 million annually. That option has basically dried up, according to Sims, who said that county has imposed a 50-inmate minimum. Sims said he only needs to send 10 to 20 inmates.

Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell told commissioners the common pleas court caseload jumped 12.5 percent last year, but he has also seen judges — in part due to HB 86 — avoid sending people to prison.

“Anecdotally, in some of the cases where we had been expecting some of defendants who had been convicted to be sentenced to state prison, they’re getting sent across the street,” Fornshell said.

Commissioner Dave Young said he wants to get to the bottom of why the numbers are on the rise before he’ll pull out the county’s checkbook and pay for a jail expansion. In years past, he advocated opening a low-level criminal center, which wouldn’t require the personnel the jail does. Young said the former advisory panel recommended studying the center and he wants to revisit it.

“A low-end, DUI-type of facility where people check themselves in, check themselves out, you have one guard sitting up front,” he said.

Commissioner Pat South said the board knows a future jail expansion is inevitable.

“This board has never lived in a fantasy world that we didn’t believe we would have to add onto to the jail,” she said. “We just wanted to add the additional supporting services that helps minimize the jail capacity. Because in the grand scheme of things, I think somebody said, build it and they will come.”

About the Author