'Risky move': Bigger jail is not the only answer

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The Madison County Detention Center located on E. Irvine Street in Richmond is housing over 300 inmates with a 184-bed county facility. 

With a petition recalling the county's proposed property tax increase and the fiscal court in the process of repealing it, county officials will be forced to look at other alternative to help with overcrowding at the Madison County Detention Center.

For Judah Schept, associate professor of justice studies at EKU, the issue of overcrowding at the local and state levels is something that he has been following for quite some time and is an issue that he believes could be solved without constructing bigger jails.

"Kentucky is in this moment where there is a weird incentive structure built into communities for expanding jails," Schept said. "Counties are cash strapped, and jails are becoming a mechanism where counties can keep their jail doors open by leasing bed space to generate revenue.

"I sympathize with county administrations to try to make ends meet, but building (a) new facility is a dangerous path to go down."

He thinks instead there is a lot that could be done, but before engaging in what to do otherwise, the county should assess the population it's currently serving.

Before looking to expand or build out a jail facility, Schept strongly recommends pressuring county officials to do a population assessment and have a basic conversation of why so many county residents are being incarcerated.

"There are all kinds of things to better meet the needs of residents -- a similar tax structure, a drug treatment facility, to raising money for better or greater low income housing, incentivizing moving businesses. … We think of alternatives to incarceration in a narrow sense and developing those is important."

Assessing inmate population is one issue hoped to be addressed with the proposed criminal justice and bail reform commission made in a joint effort with the county and two cities.

Schept said he would give the commission's formation "a cautious yes," depending on who is chosen to represent the board.

Typically, he said, boards of this nature often reflect a very narrow cross section of decision makers or local elites, including politicians, perhaps the sheriff or a police captain, according to Schept.

"I would be very weary, personally, if that were the composition," he said.

While still including some of those people, Schept advocates for the inclusion of family members of those currently incarcerated, social service providers, EKU faculty and even formerly incarcerated persons to solicit advice.

"We're talking about different types of expertise," he told The Register Monday. "Those people have experienced what we are talking about first hand -- the challenges, the inhumanities -- and they also have incredible insight on how best to make those changes. I would say at minimum they be at the table and be a part of a group making those kinds of decisions.

With the county still hoping to fund a new $45 million facility to accommodate for 800 or more inmates, Schept predicts that its construction could end in one of two ways historically speaking.

The first scenario, he predicted, would be that shortly after completion of the new site, it would be full and overcrowded in just a few years, or even months, leaving officials scrambling once more of how to stay afloat financially and at capacity.

He warned that with new facilities, spaces built to be included for drug rehabilitation or recreation areas would be the first areas compromised for additional bed space after seeing an influx of inmates to the facility.

"If you build it, you will fill it. That has been true," he said. "These are well-intentioned ideas, you also have the space for programs and drug rehabilitation. If you fill (the jail), the first space that is compromised to accommodate the flow of prisoners is the space that has been set aside for treatment and care in the span of months or years."

Already, Madison County Jailer Steve Tussey has presented to the fiscal court the closure of a recreation space to accommodate more bed space in the existing jail on East Irvine Street.

If the county were to build a new facility, county officials have already included in their plans intentions to house state and federal inmates in the hopes of generating more revenue, something that Schept said could be a downfall if the state were to do their part in attempts to help house inmates themselves.

Less than a month ago, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin announced the reopening of the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Floyd County as a means to help ease counties' overcrowding burdens.

Schept warns against the investment in new infrastructure and called it risky, especially if the state decided to open or build a new facility themselves to alleviate a county's burden, stopping the revenue of state inmates from flowing in.

"If counties built out, that extra space would go to state prisoners, they would go on the hook and be left to foot the bill with no state inmates going in, if the state were to do something to help," he said. "It is a risky move."

Reach Taylor Six at 624-6623 or follow her on Twitter @TaylorSixRR.

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