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Solutions to Greene County Jail Overcrowding Being Discussed

Michele Skalicky

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, Michele Skalicky takes a look at what's causing the overcrowding problem at the Greene County Jail and what's being done to address the problem.

Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott announced on April 1st that he would no longer accept anyone arrested on municipal charges at the Greene County Jail.  Greene County presiding commissioner, Bob Cirtin said a city of Springfield fire marshal examined the building and determined the capacity was 601, which prompted the sheriff’s decision. The decision led to a lawsuit filed by the City of Springfield against the sheriff and the county commission.  The city wants a judge to declare that the county must accept municipal inmates at the jail. 

At issue is a 1997 intergovernmental agreement between both the city and county over the housing of municipal inmates.  According to the lawsuit, on July 16, 1997, “The parties agreed that the jail would accept and house, with limited exceptions, all Springfield Municipal prisoners and that the funding for housing the Springfield Municipal prisoners would consist solely of the proceeds collected from the tax approved by Greene County voters on November 4, 1997.”

Because Sheriff Arnott stopped accepting those arrested on municipal charges, Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said anyone with multiple warrants is either brought before a judge when court’s in session or, more often, the person is released.

"They say, 'I can't take you to jail on your five, six, seven municipal warrants and hold you there until the judge is able to see you in the morning,'" he said.

If that person doesn’t show up for their court date, warrants are re-issued.  He said that’s frustrating for police officers, for the courts and for the community.

"People are starting to feel the effects of, for lack of a better term, people thumbing their nose at the criminal justice system and knowing that they're not going to be held accountable," he said.

Meanwhile, work is ongoing to find ways to address the overcrowding problem at the Greene County Jail as cities in the county have to release those arrested for multiple municipal violations because they have nowhere to send them.  The jail still must accept municipal prisoners with corresponding state charges.

"Where it could be a stealing charge.  If it's a mutual affray, which is, you know, a physical fight, there's  a state assault charge," said Greene County Sheriff's deputy, Cathy Ussery.

Ussery said the overcrowding problem has been an issue for a long time. 

According to Ussery, when the jail was expanded and remodeled in 2002 at a cost of $22 million, it was projected that the space would meet the county’s needs for five years.  It reached capacity four to five years later, she said.

Eight years later, overcrowding has become a real problem.    She said there’s an average inmate population of 711—a few are in area hospitals, and some (40-70 inmates a day, according to Cirtin) are sent to the Henry, Cedar and Vernon County Jails. 

What many people don’t realize, Ussery said, is that the jail is basically a holding facility until court cases can be resolved.  A small percentage—around 15 percent--of the inmate population is serving a sentence at the jail, but most are one year or less. 

Commissioner Cirtin said the overcrowding at the jail is simply the most visible symptom of a much larger problem.

"We have trouble getting somebody, once they've been arrested and if they have to spend time in jail, we're having trouble getting them through the system, so we need more prosecutors.  I know that the prosecutor, Dan Patterson, he has several hundred felony cases that are sitting on a shelf, so to speak,  waiting to be filed and so there's a backlog there.  The public defenders office has an  unbelievable backlog, and, of course, we have to get cases to the judges," he said.

One plan that’s being worked on, he said, is to provide $150,000 to private attorneys who will take cases from public defenders to try to move them through the courts more quickly.  While that’s not the county’s responsibility, he said, they had to do something.  And the county is getting a new judge—a courtroom for that judge is currently under construction.  The county also plans to have someone in the courtroom who can help a prisoner fill out an application for a public defender do that process moves along more quickly.

"That way maybe we can cut two or three weeks off this guy's--of of feeding this guy," he said.

The county has asked its architect to put together a master plan of facilities that are needed, according to Cirtin, and that includes an expansion and reconfiguration of the jail.

"Of course, everything costs money and so that's always the issue of being able to fund any kind of a project, but, for example, Sheriff Arnott has several staff members who have offices in the actual jail.  If we can find a place to put his staff people, that would free up that space to where we could put 144 additional beds in the jail," he said.

He said that won’t solve the problem, but it will help alleviate it.

Ussery said many of those held at the Greene County Jail have health issues, including mental illnesses, and the county must pay for their care.  In fact, Cirtin said the jail is the largest inpatient mental health facility in Southwest Missouri.  Because of that, the county will divert prisoners to Greene County Mental Health Court or to the Drug Court when possible.  Ussery hopes that will help with the current recidivism rate at the jail, which is around 85 percent.

And she said they’re looking at pretrial services to help alleviate the overcrowding problem.

"You know, as far as GPS monitoring.  There's a lot of different agencies around here that also offer that in lieu of jail time," she said.

Commissioner Cirtin says he expects to have a plan to deal with the overcrowding problem ready within the next few months.  He’s put together a Citizens Financial Advisory Committee that meets once a month, and one issue they’re looking at is the jail.

"These folks have been tasked with helping us with some ideas to fund these issues that we've been talking about, the master plan for the criminal justice system," he said.

Cirtin wishes more money was available  to address the overcrowding problem.  He said if they had more funds, the county could address the problems leading to overcrowding except for public defenders, which are paid by the state.

Meanwhile, he said the sheriff is accepting inmates arrested on multiple municipal warrants, but only when space is available.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.
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