Law Enforcement Jockeying For Jail Space During Pandemic

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Local residents have been venting their frustrations on the Nelsonville Police Department’s Facebook page as people arrested for crimes are turned loose because the jail cannot take them.

“What’s the point when they’re just released and then trusted to appear in court,” reads one comment.

“Makes my damn blood boil,” reads another.

“I guess I should be a criminal today, absolutely no consequences,” reads another.

Nelsonville Police Chief Scott Fitch is frustrated, too.

“It’s to the point where … a very low percentage of the people we arrest or have warrants or felonies on will even be accepted into the jail,” he said.

The problem is the COVID-19 pandemic. The Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail reduced its capacity to protect the health of correctional officers and inmates, and prevent outbreaks that could spread into the community.

The jail has beds for about 230 inmates, but it’s only housing 180 at a time right now.

This is bad timing for Fitch, who was hired last summer.

 “I was brought here to clean Nelsonville up … so we are making more arrests than we’ve ever made in the past,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, there were days when the jail was full and couldn’t take anymore inmates. The pandemic has made that a more common scenario, which means in some cases even people arrested on felony charges or who have warrants for their arrest are being released back into the community.

“Once in a while they’ll take the person we arrest for a misdemeanor offense and … later that day they won’t take people with felony arrests with no bonds, which is pretty severe,” Fitch said. “So there’s no rhyme nor reason if you look at the severity of the offenses.”

That’s because the jail’s beds are available on a first-come, first-served basis for the five counties it serves: Athens, Hocking, Morgan, Perry and Vinton.

In other words, bed space is not allocated based on the severity of the crime, although there are exceptions.

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn put it this way:

“If tomorrow there’s 13 open beds and Vinton County goes out and arrests 13 people then Athens County can’t get a bed unless the jail at that time is willing to go over capacity because of the nature of the arrests. It’s problematic. It’s not a great situation for the criminal justice side of things.”

But the jail does make exceptions for serious felonies. Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith said the jail will go over the limit to take someone arrested for a violent crime or who is considered a flight risk.

“If somebody that we feel is a danger to the community or they won’t show up in court, we’ll call them and say, ‘Hey, we need this person, they have to be incarcerated,’ and they always are,” Smith said.

What the jail cannot do is simply decide to let one inmate go — even someone in on a relatively minor offense — to make room for another. Only a judge can make that call. And sometimes that does happen.

More often what happens is people who otherwise would be arrested and booked into jail are instead given a summons to appear in court and let go.

One possible solution could be to develop a temporary policy under which crimes are listed by severity and a line is drawn: The jail will only accept people arrested for the more serious crimes.

Smith, who sits on the jail’s governing board, said the problem with this approach is available beds could be unused for days depending on the mix of crimes in any given week.

This would create a financial problem for the jail because its revenue is based on beds in use, so it would lose money by holding beds open.

Another approach could be to allocate a certain number of beds to each county based on the average number of arrests they make.

Smith said the counties would not agree to a system like this because they don’t want to pay for beds they’re not using at the moment and do not want to be limited if they need more beds at some point.

Athens City Police Car
[File Photo]
Officers for now are having to make more judgment calls about who to arrest. Athens Police Capt. Ralph Harvey said this sometimes means kicking it up to a higher level for a decision.

“Ultimately what we’ve had to do sometimes is call the prosecutor or call the court and say, ‘What do you want us to do here? Do you want us to release this person?’” he said.

Another option is to call around and find an open bed in another jail. But this costs extra money. It also means the officer will be tied up even longer taking the person to jail and then driving back out again in the morning to pick the person up and take them to court for arraignment.

“We have to balance that against, OK, what is this, is this a property crime, are we concerned about flight, is the person a flight risk, has he had warrants or she had warrants before,” Harvey said.

And other jails are also facing a space crunch.

 “There’s times we’ve called every jail around within four hours driving distance. Nothing. This pandemic has really affected us all,” Smith said.

Nelsonville chief Fitch said he worries about the possible repercussions of releasing criminal suspects or people with warrants back into the community.

“My concern is how are we not under some sort of liability if that person goes and injures somebody or commits another crime,” he said.

Even when the pandemic is over and the jail is back to full capacity, bed space will remain a challenge.

“If the jail called today and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to accept another 40 inmates,’ it would be full in four days,” Smith said.

The long-term solution is to either add more jail space or send fewer people to jail. For example, judges could release more criminal suspects on their own recognizance as their cases move through the courts instead of setting bail.

In some places the cash bail system is being used more sparingly or scrapped entirely, because of the burden it places on jails and on low-income people who cannot afford to pay their way out of jail while they await trial.

Law enforcement in Athens and the four other counties that share the regional jail for now are going to have to keep working within the limits they face. Athens police captain Harvey struck a somewhat resigned but philosophical note about the situation:

“It’s a problem, but it was a problem before the pandemic and it will be a problem after. And we just have to do our best to pick through it and make the best choices we can.”