Mayor blames release of jail inmates for crime



The mayor said his city cannot be allowed to degenerate into lawlessness.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mayor George M. McKelvey says the emergency jail release policy is illegal and attri-butes a crime wave to county commissioners' refusal to provide funds to staff the jail.
In a five-page letter sent out Friday to Vincent M. Nathan, special master overseeing the Mahoning County jail, the mayor expressed his concerns. He's especially disturbed that he, the city law department and city prosecutor's office have been excluded from a working group formed to suggest remedies for the roughly half-full lockup.
Prosecutor Paul J. Gains said the city has had representatives at the group's meetings. He noted that the city is not part of the jail's federal lawsuit, now in its remedial stage.
Fact finder
Nathan is acting as a fact finder for U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr., who is taking steps to make the jail constitutionally sound. Dowd appointed Nathan after inmates won the class-action lawsuit in March.
Because of a lack of funding that resulted in the layoff of deputies, the judge has limited the jail population to 296. It can hold 564 inmates.
In March, Mahoning County Common Pleas judges established a 13-step jail release criteria. Some inmates serving a sentence are placed on furlough and some awaiting court action are let go with a court summons.
McKelvey said in his letter that common pleas judges don't have the authority to modify sentences imposed by municipal judges. He said such change rests with the appeals court.
Gains said the procedure was approved by the federal judge and wondered if the mayor was questioning the judge's interpretation of the law.
"The consequences of the emergency release policy have been devastating for the city of Youngstown. The homicide rate is on pace to double this year as compared to 2003, when jail capacity was at its highest," he wrote. "Crime of all types has increased alarmingly since we have been unable to incarcerate any misdemeanor offenders."
The city recorded 19 homicides in 2003. As of Friday, the city had 26.
Lawlessness feared
McKelvey wondered how a community maintains an effective level of law and order when there is no legal consequence for "beating up, threatening, stealing from or destroying the property of anyone you choose." He said the city cannot be allowed to degenerate into lawlessness.
He said once the public perceives that law cannot protect them, a miniature "Hobbesian world" is created in which only force and violence are respected.
McKelvey wrote to Nathan that Sheriff Randall A. Wellington had been complying with state law in the spring when he shipped inmates to other jails because of reduced staff at his own jail. Commissioners, though, viewed the process as too costly, the mayor said.
McKelvey said in his letter that city residents have effectively been abandoned. He wants the "illegal" emergency jail release order dissolved and wants commissioners to fund the jail.
The mayor said incarcerating prisoners is a mandatory function of county government and commissioners should not claim they can't afford to carry out the function "unless they cease funding all discretionary functions."
Gains, who represents commissioners in the federal lawsuit, said he knows of no authority that mandates the commissioners to fund the jail. "I know they're mandated to fund the courts," he said.
Gains said he understands the city's frustration.
"I feel the mayor's pain," the prosecutor said. "I want to see the miscreants put in jail, too."
Looking at Akron
The prosecutor said the working jail group took a look at Akron, which pays for 115 cells in the Summit County jail, and suggested that Youngstown do likewise. This would enable municipal judges to incarcerate inmates convicted of misdemeanor crimes, he said.
The suggestion draws ire from city officials who say the city is also part of Mahoning County and city residents pay the county sales tax. McKelvey said the county, in effect, is coercing its poorest residents, the people of Youngstown, to pay costs that county government is legally obligated to pay or else be victimized by crime.
"If the county government refuses to even pay to house the prisoners, city residents are receiving virtually nothing in exchange for their tax money," McKelvey wrote.
Gains said there's a distinction drawn between cities and townships. Cities can build their own jails, he said.
McKelvey said in his letter that it seems the special master believes the jail should never again operate at full capacity. Gains said that's not his interpretation and his goal is to see the jail at full capacity.
Problems that led up to the class-action lawsuit won't be fixed exclusively with money pumped into the jail budget to the exclusion of all other steps necessary to address underlying systemic problems, Nathan said in a report issued last month in which he called the county's criminal justice system dysfunctional. Only Mahoning County officials can develop the solution to the complex criminal justice problems, he said.