CINCINNATI -- County taxpayers are spending as much as $3,300 a day to send inmates to Butler County’s jail to relieve overcrowded, unsafe conditions because Sheriff Jim Neil says he has no room for them at the Hamilton County Justice Center.
Three months ago, Neil declared an emergency at the Hamilton County Justice Center, saying the building was so overpopulated and unsafe that he would begin to ship inmates to Butler County.
Since then, the sheriff has consistently kept 25 or more inmates daily at Butler County, running up a tab of more than $165,000 in the last three months. At peak points in June, Hamilton County was sending as many as 45 inmates to the neighboring jail.
Now, Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune is publicly calling for those inmates to be returned, because the county can’t afford the expense.
The county is already grappling with a $5 million budget hole this year, has a soft freeze on hiring, is not giving out raises and faces a backlog of deferred capital projects.
“The sheriff does not seem to be in any hurry to terminate the arrangement with Butler County,” Portune said in an interview with WCPO. “We made it clear, two months ago, that we wanted to put an end to that immediately.”
The sheriff, who often veers from his budget, is currently spending $2 million more than planned. He is over budget more than any other department in the county.
But Neil said he can’t worry about the cost of sending inmates to Butler County. He’s more worried about the safety costs – for both inmates and those working at the jail – of overcrowding. The jail, he said, isn’t built to keep more than roughly 1,200 inmates. But on a typical day, anywhere from 1,400 to 1,500 prisoners shuffle through. Neil declared the “state of emergency” in June, when 1,611 people were housed in the facility.
Neil said he has nowhere to put the inmates currently staying at the Butler County jail. On Monday night, for example, he said 22 inmates slept on the jail’s gym floor.
If he were to stop sending inmates to Butler County, “where are we going to put them?” Neil said. “Our only option is to send them to another jail facility. We’re trying to limit the number that we are sending out. But we’ve reached that boiling point.”
Overcrowding at the jail is a years-old Hamilton County problem that no one has solved.
Commissioners are weary of sending inmates to Butler County because, a decade ago, the county was sending 300 inmates a day to the nearby, out-of-county facility at a cost of $16,500 a day.
But the jail has started busting at its seams again after the Ohio Supreme Court last year warned the sheriff for releasing inmates early, stating in a court filing that only judges had the authority to shorten a prisoner’s sentence. The court’s opinion was also used in attack ads against Neil in his re-election race last year.
Neil said he has stopped releasing inmates early and the jail’s population has since swelled.
“The sheriff has no space, it’s really sad, and the sheriff before him didn't have any jail space,” Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said. “Your poor sheriff doesn't have much of a choice … I feel sorry for the people who live in Hamilton County.”
He doesn't expect to stop housing inmates in Butler County anytime soon.
But commissioners want the inmates returned. Portune said he’s asked judges to consider lowering bonds, allowing non-violent offenders to be released days early, and he wants more inmates sent to the county’s work camp -- the River City Correctional Center (Neil cannot legally send offenders there).
Those decisions, however, can only be made by judges, who aren't beholden to what the commissioners or sheriff want.
“There’s been a lot of effort in various ways to manage the jail population,” Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel said. He said the commissioners have been working with judges, asking them to consider different punishments, such as ankle monitoring, because of the overcrowding.
“You definitely have to have the courts and judges on board with that,” Monzel said.
In the short term, the county is also looking at installing more toilets to accommodate extra prisoners.
Meanwhile, Neil said reconfiguring parts of the building could free up space for inmates. He’s suggested turning office space, including the conference room where WCPO interviewed him, into space for extra cells.
But that would take more money, something Hamilton County finds itself short on this year.
“We can present those ideas,” Neil said. “But I’m not the owner of the building – the county commissioners are.”