County Moves Forward with Jail Re-Entry Program

State Gazette 

Franklin County curbed its recidivism rate from 35 percent to 3 percent with a program that teaches inmates life skills, works with them to reintegrate into their families, addresses substance abuse addictions and helps them become productive members of society once again. Dyer County Sheriff Jeff Box hopes he can do the same in Dyer County. He now has four months to prove that his pilot program will work.

After tabling the issue at a midday meeting last Wednesday, the Dyer County Budget Committee reconvened on Monday afternoon to discuss the Box’s Jail Re-Entry Program after taking a few days to think about the issues. Commissioner William Mallard, chairman of the budget committee, thanked Commissioner Jim Horner for suggesting that the committee table the issue to give everyone time to think about the program in greater detail.

“I think it is a great thing,” said Mallard opening the discussion. “There are several unknowns about how to finance this but I am actually more concerned about the overcrowding issues than this program.”

Box admitted to the commissioners at last week’s meeting that perhaps he should have been more vocal about the challenges he was facing with overcrowding issues at the jail, noting that the state had threatened to put the county under a plan of action several times in the last few years. Under a plan of action the state would force the county to take steps toward alleviating the overcrowding up to and including building an addition to the county’s existing facility at the county residents’ expense.

The program, which according to Box will begin on Tuesday at the jail, will take 12 minimum-security prisoners to start and first group them into a single pod at the jail while final touches are made to the old jail facility. Grouped together, the inmates will begin to receive life coaching to including work skills, anger management, substance abuse counseling, family reintegration and spiritual guidance. Once the state has inspected the old jail facility and approves it for holding inmates once again, the 12 inmates will be transferred to the old facility, freeing 12 beds at the current jail. Box intends to fill those beds with state prisoners from which he can generate revenue at a rate of $37 per day, per inmate.

Time is a critical factor as the state has set aside funds for pilot programs such as this through June 30, at which time the program will be re-evaluated for additional funding. If all goes as planned Box could generate revenue not only for placing state prisoners at the current jail but also reimbursements from the state for running the Jail Re-Entry Program.

Box suggested that in order to track the success of the program, the money should be placed in a different fund so that the revenue and expenses could be tracked separately and without risk that it would be absorbed into the county’s general fund.

One issue that the committee wrestled with, as did the commissioners later on in the evening, was understanding how transferring inmates to the old jail and then filling their old beds in the current jail with state inmates would alleviate overcrowding issues. Box explained that the jail’s new capacity would be 208 rather than the current 184, as the old jail could house a maximum of 24 prisoners initially. He noted that population numbers represent a roller coaster with the numbers constantly fluctuating throughout the year. However, Box says that because his staff is aware that numbers fluctuate, they will be able to manage the situation and have a plan in place to transfer the inmates back to their original facility if Dyer County’s jail numbers spike once again.

“I would like to see us try this,” said Hill. “It will be hard not to fund it continually if it is successful.”

Horner and Commissioner Benny Spain both voiced their concerns and endorsements of the program.

“I think it is a great idea,” said Spain. “Sheriff is looking for different ways to avoid building an addition to the jail and spending upwards of $2 million in taxpayer money. My concern is: are we going to have enough revenue to sustain this program?”

Horner shared his skepticism about how transferring prisoners and then filling their beds would alleviate the overcrowding at the current facility.

As previously reported, Box requested $63,492 (mostly in salaries) to run the program from March 1 to June 30. The money will be covered by the driving school fund, which currently has a healthy balance of $69,000. Box’s program was unanimously approved by the budget committee and sent to the commissioners an hour later for their approval where it met similar resistance at first. After moving it to the floor for discussion on a motion by Mallard and a second by Commissioner Steve Sartin, Commissioner John Uitendaal asked if the budget committee had accounted for the program potentially costing close to $200,000 a year.

“The sheriff has a plan in place and it will pay for itself,” said Mallard.

Commissioner Dr. Brandon Dodds and Commissioner David Agee both voiced concerns about being asked to approve the program without proper notice as it was a last-minute add on to the agenda.

“I would like to hear more about it today, table it and not make a hasty decision,” said Dodds.

Box explained that every day the program is not implemented is a day that the county loses potential revenue without expenses. Until the county transfers the prisoners from the current facility to the old facility it will not incur the costs of hiring additional correction officers to monitor the old facility but will reap the benefits of billing the state for the cost of the Jail Re-Entry Program.

Commissioner Al Seward asked Box if he was aware that the state was considering pulling all state inmates out of the county. Box said that neither he nor the sheriff’s association was aware of that and he did not believe that the state currently had enough facilities to take such a drastic action.

Agee asked county attorney Michael Gauldin if the commission was in danger of violating any law if it approved items not on the agenda as it has had to do repeatedly in recent months.

“If 11 say you can do it, you can do it,” responded Gauldin.

Mayor Richard Hill took offense to the comment noting he did not understand why this item was being singled out when they were doing something that had been done “a jillion times before.” Hill added that the lack of formerly adopted Robert’s Rules of Orders allows the county the flexibility to address last-minute items. Agee responded that he just wanted to know if the county was on the right path legally.

With no further discussion presented, Chairman Milton Magee called for a role call vote. The program passed with a 14-2 majority decision with Uitendaal and Agee voting against it. Commissioner Debbie Bradshaw-Hart, Commissioner Rusty Grills, Commissioner Kyle Reynolds and Commissioner Adam Williams were not in attendance.