Lack of vote puts jail deal on hold
The jail could close without this deal, officials say.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
and PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS
YOUNGSTOWN -- While Mahoning County commissioners signed off on a three-year tentative agreement for boarding city misdemeanor prisoners in the Mahoning County jail, approval from Youngstown City Council has to wait.
Because only five of council's seven members attended Wednesday's meeting, the legislative body couldn't pass legislation to permit the city's board of control to adopt the agreement regarding the housing of city inmates.
Council needs six members to vote to pass legislation through an emergency measure. The next council meeting is set for Feb. 21. Council's finance committee plans to meet sometime next week to discuss the proposal.
The ordinance also would authorize the board of control -- the mayor, law director and finance director -- to spend about 125,000 annually to house city prisoners at the county jail and its misdemeanant facility. The ordinance doesn't have a cap on the prisoner cost.
Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams said the tentative agreement would increase the city's annual payment of about 50,000 to the county by an additional 20,000 at best.
Some council members expressed concerns about the proposed agreement, particularly the cost to the city.
Under the agreement, the county would house the first 71 city misdemeanor prisoners free beginning May 1. The city, however, would pay their meal costs, about 3 a day, and medical costs not covered by the county's insurance.
Beginning with the 72nd city misdemeanor inmate and the city's ceiling of 221 inmates, the city would pay 68.84 per prisoner per day. That fee would include meals and medical costs.
The current agreement has the city paying 68.84 a day to the county to house inmates at the jail charged with or convicted of violating city ordinances.
The new proposal calls for the city to pay to house inmates at the county jail and the now-closed county misdemeanant jail for not only city ordinance violators but those charged with state misdemeanor charges. There are other scenarios that also would require the city to pay the daily 68.84 fee.
(Williams acknowledged that he incorrectly interpreted the contract in a Wednesday article. In that article, Williams said the city had to pay 68.84 a day for any of its first 71 inmates charged with violating city ordinances, something not required in the proposal.)
Councilman Rufus Hudson, D-2nd, said the new deal could cost the city millions if it reaches the 221 capacity on a regular basis and the undetermined cost of medical fees for city inmates.
Based on history, Williams said it would be highly unlikely the city would have close to the maximum allowable amount in the county jail.
Also, if the city goes above the 125,000 mark, officials would inform council and seek its permission to spend more than that, Williams said.
Earlier Wednesday, the commissioners approved the deal.
What Gains said
County Prosecutor Paul Gains said he expects the deal would become part of a consent agreement to be approved by lawyers for inmates who sued the county and by a panel of federal judges.
The consent agreement would end a class-action lawsuit won by inmates in March 2005 regarding understaffing and overcrowding that violates their civil rights.
"Crime is a plague, and it's not going away, and we need the tools to fight crime," said Anthony Traficanti, chairman of the commissioners. "And without having a jail, without having a justice center, the judges have nowhere to send prisoners."
Traficanti characterized U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster, who facilitated recent negotiations between the city and the county, as fair to both parties.
Judge Polster warned the parties that, if an agreement wasn't reach, the jail could be closed, according to Traficanti, Gains and Williams.
If the renewal of the half-percent sales tax that funds the jail and other county government functions fails at the ballot box in May, Gains said, "I'm afraid we're going to be before that court again," because of inability to adequately fund jail operations.
"There will be no jail without the sales tax," Traficanti added.
City Law Director Iris Torres Guglucello said the hope is a permanent sales tax would be passed that would reduce the city's financial obligation to the county jail after the three-year contract expires.
Under the agreement, the federal government could house up to 150 inmates in the county jail at the 68.84 fee, but the city could displace them with its own inmates as long as it pays that fee.
The fee is the actual jail operating cost per inmate and doesn't include any profit for the county, Gains said.
The plan is designed to allow hiring of 30 to 40 additional deputy sheriffs to reopen all closed portions of the main jail and reopen the misdemeanor jail by Aug. 1.
The fully open main jail, where the federal prisoners would be lodged, could house 480 inmates; and 96 more could be lodged in the misdemeanor jail, said Sheriff Randall Wellington.
Because of funding constraints, just over two-thirds of the main jail is now operating. The misdemeanor jail has been closed since March 2005 due to lack of funding.
An additional 36-bed pod in the main jail that opened Tuesday is fully occupied, Wellington said. That reopening was made possible by the recent hiring of 10 new deputy sheriffs.
Gains and Commissioner John McNally said they expect the panel of three federal judges to sign an order that will cap the jail at 315 male inmates and 36 female inmates until additional staffing is available to open more jail pods.
The county will experience some hardship in temporarily reducing the jail population, Gains said. Those charged with violent felonies won't be released under the proposed federal court order, Gains said.
McNally said all parties in the county criminal justice system [the judges and sheriff's and prosecutor's offices] will work together to make sure the reduction from the current 437 inmates to the lower levels is accomplished "as painlessly as possible."
More discussions will be needed between county officials and officials in Campbell and Struthers concerning their access to the jail, McNally said.
Struthers and Campbell have their own jails in which they can hold prisoners for up to 12 days, Gains noted. "The sheriff is going to make sure that there are [county jail] beds available for those courts also," Gains said.
Youngstown council members also expressed concern about the city's being the only community in the county required to pay for its prisoners.