Problems are piling up at the Summit County Jail. Budget cuts have reduced staffing, creating dangerous situations for deputies and inmates. State inspectors have flagged numerous violations of minimum standards, from no recreation time to delays in booking.
Today, the county must file a report on staffing problems, as required by the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed last year by female deputies. In a draft of the report, a consultant also identified serious problems, among them too many lockdowns, a lack of programming and inmates sleeping on cots. A whole new staffing plan for the jail is due in federal court in September.
Steve Barry, the Summit County sheriff, proposed a way forward in August. He began seeking support for a 0.25 percentage-point increase in the county sales tax, among the lowest in the state. Barry correctly notes the effects of budget cuts, the number of full-time supervisors, deputies and civilian workers down by more than 40 since 2009.
One solution is to manage the jail population more effectively by keeping people out in the first place, using probation and pre-trial release programs. But, Barry points out, an increase in violent crimes means many are not eligible, keeping the jail at more than 600 inmates a day.
Still, the tax issue — so far coolly received by county Executive Russ Pry and the County Council — would be a huge step. The 0.25 percentage-point increase, the minimum allowed by state law, would raise $19 million annually. Barry doesn’t want the full amount (properly staffing the jail is estimated to cost around $3 million), which means proceeding with the proposal would require a compelling campaign built around other priorities.
Before such a campaign gets under way, several issues raised in the consultant’s report bear careful scrutiny. Developing a new staffing plan for the jail, although a difficult and complicated exercise, provides an important opportunity to look for more efficient ways to operate, both within the jail and throughout the sheriff’s office.
For example, the consultant points to time spent classifying inmates when 44 percent are released within three days. The report notes duties with special units (such as the bomb squad) that take deputies away from the jail. It also suggests giving more incentives to inmates for good behavior, making the jail easier to manage.
As detailed by staff writer Rick Armon, a recent incident involved a deputy who was assaulted by an inmate — with no backup available. The episode underscores the need to rethink how the jail and sheriff’s office operate.
Without changes, there is clearly too much risk for both deputies and inmates. That said, going to the ballot with an increase in the county sales tax should come only after the most rigorous analysis of how existing resources can be better used.