Wednesday, August 8, 2007

County jail population explodes

Costs accrue as other jails hold county?s prisoners

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling shows a schematic of the new county public safety facility, which should be completed by July 2008. Femling said the new facility will help solve overcrowding at the existing jail, which was built in 1971. Photo by Willy Cook

Construction is well under way on Blaine County's new jail, but completion can't come soon enough for the sheriff's office, which is facing a prisoner population explosion at the existing facility.

In July of this year, the population averaged 38 inmates per day, 12 more than the 26 beds in the aging Blaine County Jail. Sheriff Walt Femling's only option has been to send the extra prisoners to other jails, at a cost to the county of about $13,000 per month.

"The last three months we've exploded in our population," Femling said.

Numbers provided by the sheriff's office show an average inmate population of 34 in both May and June of this year. Overall for the last three months, the population has been nearly 25 percent higher than it was for the same period in 2006.

After a five-year crime rate decline in Blaine County, as reported earlier this year by Idaho State Police in the 2006 Crime in Idaho Report, criminal offenses seem to be on the increase this year.

Statistics provided by the sheriff's office show jail bookings in July at an average of 3.35 per day, up from averages of 2.42 per day in July of both 2005 and 2006.

Not only is the number of arrests higher this year, but prisoners are staying longer, too. The average length of jail time per prisoner in July was 13.05 days, up from an average jail stay of 9.49 days in July 2005 and 10.75 days in July 2006.

"We're sitting at 1,180 inmate days per month," said Jail Administrator Lt. Jay Davis. "And that's the highest we're had in a long time."

Construction started in May on Blaine County's new public safety facility, which is being built at the Airport West light-industrial park in southern Hailey. When completed, the facility will include a new 76-bed jail, office and work space for the sheriff's staff and a countywide emergency dispatch center.

The $12 million facility will replace the aging sheriff's office and jail that was built in 1971 at the corner of Walnut Street and First Avenue near downtown Hailey.

Femling said the latest projected completion date for the new jail facility is July 2008.

"We're really lucky right now that we'll have a new jail within the next year," Femling said. "The timing of the new jail is excellent."

In the meantime, "what it means right now is we really don't have the space, and we're blowing our budget out of the water," he said.

Based on expenses from past years, Femling budgeted $20,000 this year for housing Blaine County prisoners at other facilities. By the end of July, the cost so far this year was $49,000, and it continues to accrue at a rate of about $13,000 per month.

"That's what we've had to pay other facilities to hold our prisoners," Femling said.

Over the last three months, eight to 12 inmates are typically being held for Blaine County at the Twin Falls County Jail, the Gooding County Jail, the Elmore County Jail in Mountain Home or the Mini-Cassia Criminal Justice Center in Burley.

"We have deputies constantly transporting them back and forth for hearings or sentencings," Femling said.

Since arrest rates can be affected by numerous factors, Femling said it's difficult to pinpoint why jail bookings are up this year. For example, people might be more watchful or willing to report crimes. Other contributing factors could be available police manpower or focus of various law enforcement agencies. It could also just be a temporary spike that shows up statistically, but in reality is just an anomaly.

"It's really hard to nail down, but we can say this: More people are coming into our jail," Femling said.

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