The jail population in Coffee County has seen a 25-percent decrease in recent weeks, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC).
Currently, the county jail houses about 320 inmates, about 100 fewer than several months ago.
When the new jail was opened in 2015, the inmate population rapidly grew from about 280 inmates to more than 400 in 2018, reaching 455 inmates in May of last year, according to TDOC reports.
By the end of 2018, the jail population had seen a decrease, averaging fewer than 320 inmates for the last three months of the year. The facility housed 294 inmates on Dec. 31.
$1.5 M potential savings
If this trend continues, it would translate into about $1.5 million of annual savings for county taxpayers.
According to the department of corrections, in Fiscal Year 2017-18, the average cost-per-day to house an offender (including those housed at privately managed facilities) was $79.06.
Locally, county officials use more conservative numbers for the expense to taxpayers of housing inmates – about $40 per day.
A simple calculation using the low estimate, shows the cost per year would be $6.1 million for housing an average of 420 inmates and $4.7 million for an average of 320 inmates.
Keeping numbers low
“The jail population today (Jan. 29) is 312,” said Lt. Rick Gentry, Coffee County jail administrator.
Gentry said the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department works hand-in-hand with the other county agencies and departments to tackle the issue – to reduce the jail population, while, at the same time, making sure there are no risks to the community.
“Sheriff [Chad Partin] is working with the district attorney, with the public defenders, with the judicial system overall,” Gentry said.
“We are also in discussions about possibilities for alternative incarceration to keep our numbers low,” Gentry said. “We are looking into different areas – we still have to check on the feasibility of it.”
Sheriff’s department officials are examining different ways of alternative incarceration, such as “going to a house-arrest-type system with an ankle bracelet,” added Gentry.
“We are in the early stages of that,” he said.
For any alternative incarceration system to be implemented, officials with the judicial system would have to be on board, as well.
“Another factor that has helped us is the video arraignments, which has helped move through the system a lot quicker,” Gentry said.
In 2017, the Coffee County judges started handling cases through a video conferencing system. Through the video arraignment, the judge sits on the bench in court while inmates appear on a video monitor from the jail. Coffee County Circuit Court Judge Craig Johnson was one of the avid supporters for launching the program.
County officials say the new system is more secure and saves taxpayers money in manpower and fuel expenses.
Historically, inmates had been transported from the jail to the justice center and placed in a holding cell. The arraignments usually took all day, but with the video arraignment system that time was cut dramatically.
After the jail population started to exceed capacity last year, community members, county officials and professionals with the court system started looking for answers in attempt to understand the issue and find a solution.
Even with the new jail’s higher capacity, the risk for running out of space again was evident.
The combined capacity of the main jail and the jail annex was 436 – 400 at the jail and 36 at the annex. The annex has since been closed.
Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott participated in several meetings last year to discuss and understand the issue and look for a resolution – one that ensures the community is safe and maintains justice.
“As to the jail population, my position is, always has been and always will be, that my job is to make sure that every criminal case is dealt with justly and as efficiently as possible,” Northcott said. “If that results in the jail being full, so be it. If that results in the jail being empty, so be it. Jail population [is] not a factor in my decision on how to handle a matter.
“That said, I obviously don’t want overcrowding conditions in the jail to unduly impact the safety and well-being of the officers or inmates.”
Overcrowding is a reason to evaluate the efficiency of the process and make sure “we are doing everything possible to resolve matters timely and justly,” added Northcott.
“In the last several years, I have done several things with the cooperation and support of the judges, sheriff’s department and clerk’s office in an effort to improve the efficiency of the system,” Northcott said.
“I began having grand jury monthly rather than just five times a year. This greatly reduces the delay in matters moving from General Sessions Court to Circuit Court. Under the old system, there could be as much as a four-month period from the time the matter was resolved in General Sessions until it was presented to the grand jury. Now, that delay is typically less than 30 days.”
Northcott has also requested to have preliminary hearing/trial dockets in General Sessions Court three times per week.
“Before, there were only three or four such dockets each month,” Northcott said. “This would often cause delays in resolving the General Sessions phase of cases, sometimes for months. That delay has now been all but eliminated.”
Northcott helped launch the video arraignments, as well.
“I also pushed for the implementation of video arraignment,” Northcott said. “This is now being fully used in Circuit and General Sessions Court.
“This allows for the defendants’ first appearance to often be done a day or more sooner in General Sessions Court. In many instances, cases are then fully resolved days or weeks sooner than they otherwise would have been.”
All of these changes have been in place for at least a year, said Northcott.
“There certainly are other smaller changes that also contribute to the improved efficiency of the system,” Northcott said. “I can’t explain the drastic reduction in the jail population between May 2018 and the end of last year.
“So long as the people who need and have been ordered to be in jail remain there and no one who shouldn’t be in jail is there, I am glad that the justice system is working and moving cases efficiently through the system.”
Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell held several meetings last year to shine a light on the high jail population and the search for solutions.
Cordell said last week he is happy about the reduced local incarceration rate.
“I am elated that the traffic is down,” Cordell said. “That makes for a safer environment for our corrections officers. I am excited about that.”
Elena Cawley may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.