TUPELO – “You’ve run out of chances,” Judge Dan Davis told a 40-something aged man recently in city court.
The man’s fines totaled $2,066 and his charges went back to 2007 – no seat belt, no insurance twice, expired tag, no driver’s license twice.
Davis sentenced him to the Lee County Jail, where the judge told him he could participate in the county work program to pay off the fines.
At the rate of $50 per day, he’ll see freedom’s light by the end of July.
The man was just one of scores of minor offenders Davis saw that day.
It’s the same in Lee County Justice Court, when three times a week, judges mete out punishments for mostly minor offenses – each with a financial consequence.
Virtually everyone pleading guilty is fined. Most who can’t pay immediately go on a monthly pay plan.
Those who can’t pay at all, or like the 40-something man weren’t given that option, are ordered to sweat it off in the custody of the only adult jail facility in Lee County.
A glance at the Lee County Jail’s occupancy shows about a third of the prisoners are there because they can’t pay their fines for misdemeanor or nonviolent offenses.
Capt. Tony Carleton, the jail’s administrator, said Wednesday about 18 people are working off their fines while 61 others aren’t.
“Some of them refuse to work,” he said, “and the others have been sentenced to serve the time.”
Most of the others in jail are accused of or have committed more serious crimes, felonies. While many of the ones only accused of crimes have bonds set, those bonds can prove impossible to pay or get. So, they wait in jail for an outcome, which may turn out to be imprisonment again.
“Jail population is a big issue,” Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson is quick to report.
“It’s a problem and needs a solution.”
Johnson has been making that speech for several years to anybody who will listen, but as he and other county officials talk about the pros and cons of building a new multimillion-dollar addition, he’s looking at more immediate relief.
“We average at least 200 inmates every day, and we stay full 99.9 percent of the time,” he told Lee County supervisors 14 months ago.
At look at the statistics shows that more than a few Lee County Jail inmates are there because they can’t pay their fines.
Others are serving felony sentences or wait for transport to state prison.
Regardless, the 13 1/2-year-old facility can sometimes exceed capacity, which continues to challenge county leaders for answers.
More immediate relief
From 2005 to 2008, Lee County’s jail housed an annual average of 7,182 prisoners. Some were short-timers, others spent months there.
These figures include state inmates – those waiting to be taken to state quarters by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
And Lee County’s facility on North Commerce Street gets some relief when prisoners, especially those with longer-term sentences, can be transferred to the Front Street work center, with a capacity for 64.
Johnson and the Lee County Board of Supervisors are talking about alternatives to incarceration. Johnson’s approach isn’t for violent offenders.
“Anybody else is a potential candidate for the ankle bracelet,” the sheriff notes, referring to an electronic monitor that straps onto the offender’s ankle.
One type of monitor tracks a person’s movements. The other detects alcohol in the person’s sweat. Law enforcement and court officials could check the monitoring records online.
An initial pilot program for 50 non-violent prisoners starts at $12 per day per bracelet, compared to the county’s in-jail cost of $25 per day.
Similar programs are used in Monroe, Prentiss and Itawamba counties. And Lee County Justice Court and Drug Court Judge Rickey Thompson said he has successfully used it on at least one person.
The bracelet proposal comes as county leaders search for both short- and long-term solutions to the overcrowding.
As things stand right now, Lee County legally can house up to 202 prisoners per day. The county has been sued for exceeding those limits.
On May 8, 2008, supervisors asked a Tupelo architecture firm to study how the facility can be expanded. Later, they approved a plan to enlarge it, although specifics haven’t been decided.
Johnson has said he hopes the jail can be expanded to handle at least double its inmate capacity. “We can only do so much. We’ve been this way for a while.”
Across Northeast Mississippi, at least seven counties have faced jail-related lawsuits in the past seven years. New jails have been built in Monroe and Pontotoc counties, and other counties have begun plans for a facilities.
But while Lee County waits for a decision on its expansion plans, the inmate population continues to push the limit.
“What people have to realize,” Johnson notes, “is that if you’re housed here for no driver’s license or for murder, it still takes the same amount of space to house either one.”
That’s one reason Johnson presses on for the ankle-bracelet program as an immediate way to ease the space crunch.
“Many of these people could go back to work, to school,” he said. “You’re doing more for society – that way, they could pay off their fines.”
Johnson and Jail Administrator Carleton say they work with local judges to anticipate jail population surges, such as when law enforcement rounds up scores of people indicted by a grand jury.
City Judge Davis also said he’s mindful of the weekly impact his courtroom population can make on the jail, routinely getting commitments, if necessary, for paying off the fines.
While the monitoring program will help ease some overcrowding, Johnson said an addition still is necessary for future inmate needs.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal