Toilets a temporary fix for Hamilton County's jail overcrowding. What's the long-term solution?

CINCINNATI -- A few new toilets might help taper the overflow of inmates at the Hamilton County Justice Center.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil plans to add 26 new toilets and sinks, making way for up to 50 more inmates at the jail, which has a maximum capacity of roughly 1,200 inmates.

In June, Neil declared the jail in crisis mode as more than 1,600 inmates crowded the facility. Some of them were sleeping on cots in the jail’s gym, he said. Deputies were ready to file a complaint with the collective bargaining unit over the conditions, he added.

Neil said he had no choice but to send inmates to Butler County’s jail, at a charge of $75 per day per inmate. The move – which costs taxpayers as much as $3,000 per day – did not sit will with Hamilton County commissioners, who demanded the inmates be returned from the neighboring county. The sheriff is already $2 million over his budget this year, and sending inmates to Butler County has only added to the tab.

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune announced Monday that the sheriff agreed to pay the $176,000 needed for new toilet and sinks.

“He did step forward, as a first step in our ongoing conversation,” Portune said of Neil.

The sheriff plans to pay for the construction of these new pods using money from his civil forfeiture account, which is money the office makes off of seizing property used in crimes. At the beginning of this year, that account had $3.6 million in it, according to the county’s budget office.

But this is only a short-term fix. 

Overcrowding at the jail is a years-old problem that no one has yet solved. A decade ago, voters killed a plan to pay for a new jail through a new sales tax.

"There is no simple solution here,” Hamilton County Administrator Jeff Aluotto told commissioners Monday.

Commissioners are considering other options to keep some offenders out of the packed jail: 

•    Sanctuary jail: The commission will consider directing the sheriff to deny requests from Immigration and Custom Enforcement to hold certain suspects who the federal government suspects could be living here illegally. 

Cincinnati officials declared the city a “sanctuary city” earlier this year but, ultimately, it’s the sheriff who is most often responsible for responding to ICE detainer requests. People arrested in Cincinnati and Hamilton County for crimes are almost always processed through the county jail. 

The sheriff told WCPO in an statement earlier this year that the jail would continue to comply with requests from the federal agency. But Portune said Monday he wants that policy changed. 

“Quiet honestly, if someone is being simply held for deportation issues, instead of criminal misconduct, they should not be taking up beds at the justice center,” Portune said. 

•    Holding off on arrests: Commissioners are currently studying a pre-arrest diversion program, which would give officers the ability to hold off on arresting and hauling off to jail people who commit non-violent crimes. 

The program would work similarly to probation, except offenders could bypass the legal system entirely.

Say an officer catches someone shoplifting at a store, for example. The officer can hold off on an arrest but order the person to go through a treatment program and pay the store back, rather than serve time in jail.  If the offender fails to follow through on the plan, the officer can then arrest the person for the initial shoplifting offense. 

This program would require a case manager to keep track of these cases. Police officers and county deputies would also need to be trained how to identify candidates for the program. It’s unclear how much the county would need to spend to launch the program. Officials in Seattle and Atlanta have seen success with a similar approach. 

“It’s something we’re looking at fairly aggressively,” Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus, a Democrat, said Monday.

•    Putting more drug offenders in treatment: County staff is researching what other treatment centers might be available to send drug offenders.

The county currently sends some drug offenders to the Talbert House, which is the only licensed jail facility in Hamilton County. Commissioner Chris Monzel, a Republican, said the county should consider sending inmates to treatment centers in nearby counties.

Portune said the commission should develop a long-term solution to jail overcrowding before the year is over.

“It may be that it involves a new way of doing business, handling or treatment of a number of the inmates that are currently housed at the justice center,” Portune said.

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