Benton County will hire staff to help with jail crowding

Tri-City HeraldMay 6, 2014 

County Jail Overcrowding

May 4, 2014 - All the beds are full inside the Benton County jail, which is struggling with overcrowding.

MATT GADE — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Benton County commissioners on Tuesday approved a plan to bring on six additional employees at the jail to ease crowding.

The six clerical workers will handle administrative tasks and free up corrections officers so that another pod, or housing area, can be opened.

The commissioners’ decision came after about 45 minutes of discussion Tuesday -- and after several weeks of discussion among county leaders.

Commissioner Shon Small said he’s concerned about liability risks that come with a crowded jail and he noted the inmate population likely will rise as the summer approaches.

“I felt comfortable enough after the discussion to say...in the end (adding staff) balances out. We’re not taking money from another fund to make it work,” Commissioner Jerome Delvin said.

The sheriff’s office “is going to have the money (in its budget) to pay for it,” added Commissioner Jim Beaver, chairman of the three-member board.

The annual cost of the six clerical workers is estimated at $466,000, including salary and benefits, although the hiring process likely will take a couple months so the cost will be about half this year.

The county won’t have to take money from other programs to do the hiring because the jail has brought in more revenue than anticipated in the current biennium, or two-year budget period.

That’s largely because it’s seen its contract inmate population rise; the jail has contracts to house inmates for the state Department of Corrections and U.S. Marshals Service.

In 2013, the state DOC contract brought in $500,000 to $600,000 more than was forecast for the year, Undersheriff Jerry Hatcher said.

Commissioners on Tuesday discussed dealing with the crowding by cutting back on or eliminating the contracts, but it was determined that would represent a bigger financial hit because the revenue helps keep overall jail costs down.

The jail for months has seen its inmate numbers rise. It has more than 730 beds total, but two pods were closed as the county dealt with a projected shortfall in its 2013-14 budget and the jail experienced a dip in the inmate population.

The dip was due in part to a new state law meant to reduce the amount of money the state was spending to house offenders in county jails for community supervision violations. A dozen jail staff positions were eliminated through attrition.

But now the inmates numbers are climbing -- a trend officials don’t expect to end anytime soon. They also note a three-tenths of one percent public safety sales tax on the ballot in the county this summer will put more law enforcement officers on the streets countywide if successful.

The jail has about 610 beds in its currently-opened pods, although officials factor out 10 percent when calculating capacity because not all inmates can be housed together due to gender or issues such as gang disputes.

The jail on Tuesday had 620 inmates, with dozens sleeping in temporary beds set up on the floor.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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