Guest column: County looks ‘dysfunctional’ on jail dispute, needs solutions

Myron Iwanski

Myron Iwanski

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank’s op-ed column submitted to the media last week questioned County Commission’s decision to expand the jail. It has some incorrect statements about the history of this decision that need to be corrected.

In 10 years, the peak daily population of the jail nearly tripled. In 2000, there were 120 inmates, and in 2010 there were 340. The jail had a capacity of 226 when the decision to expand the jail was made in 2011. The peak daily population this year has increased to 396.

Mayor Frank’s claim that the jail is not overcrowded in very misleading.

This overcrowding is causing major problems in being able to properly classify inmates based on risks and other factors. This was the major reason the state was about to decertify the jail in 2011. It also does not take into account that we have approximately 3,000 outstanding arrest warrants, some of which prosecutors and deputies will tell you are for criminals that need to be in the jail. These criminals are not being actively pursued because of a lack of jail space.

The number of inmates in the jail varies from day to day and is totally dependent on those arresting, prosecuting, defending, and judging these criminals—not County Commission. County Commission is required to fund the jail to house however many are assigned to the jail by the criminal justice system. Faced with serious overcrowding and decertification of the jail by the state and federal lawsuits, County Commission had no choice but to expand the jail.

Mayor Frank’s column implies that a 16.2-cent tax increase was passed in 2010 to fund the jail. That also is misleading. The largest portion of that tax increase went to fund the County Alternative School. Taxpayers in Oak Ridge did not have their taxes increased to cover this county school project.

Taxes were increased (for the first time in 10 years) by five cents (2 percent—or $15 per year for an average homeowner) to cover the jail construction. This was with the understanding that the extra cost for operating the jail would be paid for by savings in other areas and by increasing revenue for housing a limited number of low risk state and/or federal inmates.

For 10 years, County Commission has been encouraging those in our criminal justice system to put alternatives to jail in place to help slow down the rate of growth in jail population. In 2011, commission provided a small amount of funding for a program to help jump start these alternatives.

Per the plan for staffing the jail, last year we able to staff the dormitory phase of the jail project without a tax increase by working to hold down spending in other areas of the sheriff’s budget.

This year’s budget approved by County Commission also provided enough funding for staffing the final phase of the jail expansion without a tax increase—but only for the last six months of this fiscal year.

The sheriff has agreed to operate within the approved budget, but the mayor has refused to sign the salary agreement to allow this to happen. So we are stuck in a lengthy and costly lawsuit that will probably lead to a tax increase that could have been easily avoided.

The jail was built with extra beds to allow for the expected increase in jail population over the next 10 years. Several of us on County Commission believe we can provide the staffing for the full year for this final phase of jail expansion by contracting to house a small number of low-risk state and federal inmates at a negotiated rate that allows us to cover some of our fixed costs.

We are asking that the law director prepare a plan for County Commission’s consideration that would allow us to use this revenue to pay for these jailers without a tax increase—like some other counties in the state have done.

The mayor has said:

  • No to several requests by County Commission for her to meet with the sheriff to work out their differences in wording in the salary agreement and avoid the costly lawsuit between she and the sheriff.
  • No to providing the staffing needed to open the expanded jail.
  • No to the alternatives to jail program, proposing to cut it by over 80 percent.
  • No to even exploring ways to generate increased per diem and revenue from housing inmates and thus avoiding a tax increase.

It appears that with this and other issues the county is beginning to look as dysfunctional as Washington, D.C. As leaders, we need to work together to find solutions to problems and offer workable alternatives rather than just saying no.

Myron Iwanski

Anderson County Commissioner, District 8

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  • Trina Baughn

    There’s no parole in the federal system. We set ourselves up to permanently house the worst of the worst if we accommodate federal inmates. This will make fewer beds available to local criminals which will create an eventual need for further expansion which will provide a convenient excuse to further raise taxes. No thanks.

    We keep hearing that crime is down. How does that work if the inmate population is up? Why are we planning to increase the jail population in the next 10 years? Why not plan to prevent rather than accommodate? It’s as if we are sending the message: Come on over! We’ll leave the light on for you! SMH.

    • Myron Iwanski

      We have the option of only contracting for taking federal inmates for a limited term basis so we would be able to free up these beds when they were needed for local inmates.

      We have been asked to consider housing immigration violators
      and other could be white collar criminals. These inmates would not be any more violent or higher risk than the inmates we have there now.

      I agree we need to prevent crime and as I explained in my
      column we have been asking those in the criminal justice system for years to put alternative programs in place to cut down on crime and jail population growth. County Commission even put some seed funds in place to start some of these programs and it has started to show some success. Unfortunately the Mayor drastically cut funding and eliminated the small staff for that that program – but we are working to get it back in place.

      There are limits on what County Commission alone can do to cut down on crime. There are things cities can do to help cut down on crime, like the “not in my town” campaign in Oak Ridge. I hope you will support these kinds of efforts.

    • BSShipley

      Did you not fully read the letter. There are thousands of warrents out there for people that cant be served because there is no room for them if they did arrest them. WIth this in find criminals know that the risk of them serviing real jail is minimual because of the over crowding. Lets get these people off our streets

  • Dave Smith

    Thank you very much for a reasoned and informed perspective on the situation with the new jail, and for presenting such without the ad hominem and condescending attacks on others which have been characteristic of so many politicians opining in the local news media.

  • Sam Hopwood

    Perhaps one answer to the difference in opinion on how the CEO of Anderson County should perform is for Myron to seek the office in 2014. Let the voters decide who they prefer.

    Incidentally, was it not the judicary in Anderson County that shot down the alternative to jail program that Myron supported? I seem to recall that their failure to support it led to the resignation of the leadership person in that program.