Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Cons might get out of crowded jail early

Bonds for local suspects also might be lowered

By Sharon Turco
and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dozens of nonviolent criminals in Cincinnati could be sent home because the Hamilton County jail is overcrowded - a move that comes as city officers have been urged to make more arrests and citizens say they're concerned about escalating crime.

The county's soaring inmate population is prompting worried court officials to seek home monitoring for those jailed on minor charges, eight-hour stays for people brought in on minor misdemeanors, a faster moving court docket and lesser bonds for minor crimes.

It's all in an effort to comply with a federal mandate that caps the number of inmates who can be housed in the jail.

"It's coming," said Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. "If we continue like we are today, there's no other choice."

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken said he wants to prevent those measures and plans to talk to City Council today about alternative inmate housing options.

Jail space has been an issue for years in Hamilton County.

In the early 1990s, the situation became so critical that a federal court stepped in to set limits on how many inmates could safely be housed in county facilities.

The number of inmates housed in the county's justice center downtown has exceeded the court-imposed limit of 1,240 four times in the last seven days. That count is usually taken at 4 a.m. By afternoon, bond hearings and movement to other facilities brings the number of inmates just under the limit, but officials fear that as soon as next week the number of inmates won't correct itself.

That means some inmates have to go.

Hamilton County Court Administrator Mike Walton said he's speaking to judges about the problem and working with other court officials to alleviate overcrowding.

The eight-hour program is expected to start as soon as Friday, he said.

Leis said his hands are tied by the federal mandate.

County Prosecutor Mike Allen understands Leis is in a difficult position. Allen is not opposed to allowing inmates who have served 95 percent of their sentence to finish it at home with an electronic monitoring unit.

The overcrowding comes as Police Chief Tom Streicher urges officers to step up enforcement, hoping to bolster the number of traffic tickets and arrests, which plummeted after the 2001 riots and haven't recovered much.

Walton said several factors are contributing to the rising numbers in the jail:

A spike in arrests in the past few weeks. This past weekend, Cincinnati police made 116 arrests in Avondale, Northside, Over-the-Rhine and Westwood during a 48-hour sweep.

An abundance of inmates serving time for parole violations. Those are particularly troubling because they could be serving sentences at state prisons instead of county jails.

But, because state facilities are just as crowded, parole officials order them to serve their time here.

Tuesday, there were 2,117 inmates housed in the jail's four facilities. The federal mandate says the total must never exceed 2,270.

Wendy Neihaus, director of pre-trial services, said county and city officials need to get out of the quick-fix mode and really examine what type of inmate housing is needed. The community should look at who the offenders are, she said.

"If we're talking about the quality of Cincinnati, we have to have a multidisciplined approach," Neihaus said. "Working in crisis mode, as we are, makes it hard to stop and look for solution."

One solution would be farming prisoners out to neighboring counties, but Leis said that's too expensive. And, those jails don't have extra room anyway, he said.

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