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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of August 7 - 13, 2002


Blaine County jail upgrade planned

Data system paid by federal funds

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Sheriff’s Office is planning to install a new data-management system at the county jail in Hailey with roughly $150,000 in federal funds it received for housing criminal illegal aliens on a short-term basis.

Sheriff J. Walt Femling last week said a new computer-based system is needed to replace an outdated data-recording system currently in place at the jail. The existing system installed in 1987 is "archaic" by modern standards, and involves recording much of the data of day-to-day operations by hand, he said.

Emphasizing the need for the new system, Femling said the six-figure windfall from the U.S. Department of Justice was a welcome surprise.

"This was totally unanticipated revenue," he said. "We’re always looking for opportunities to create revenue other than taxpayer funds, but we thought we’d only get five- or six-thousand dollars (for our services)."

Femling and the Board of County Commissioners this summer solicited proposals from qualified private enterprises interested in contracting to install the new computer system, with the deadline for submission passing last weekend.

Heather Saunders, assistant jail administrator, said Monday that six proposals had been submitted before the Aug. 3 deadline, and were being prepared for review by jail officials this week.

The county currently maintains a 30-bed jail in downtown Hailey adjacent to the Sheriff’s Office, plus a 20-bed minimum-security facility on the south end of the city near Friedman Memorial Airport.

The funds to pay for the new system came to the Sheriff’s Department through the federal government’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. Through the program, the Immigration and Naturalization Service—a division of the Justice Department—pays funds to non-federal law enforcement agencies throughout the nation for detaining illegal residents that have allegedly committed felonies, repetitive misdemeanors and misdemeanors characterized as "serious."

The federal government each year determines how much money will be doled out to agencies—such as the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office—through a complicated formula based on the number of days criminal illegal aliens are housed in the agency’s jail before they are transferred to an INS facility, Femling explained.

Based on jail-inmate figures at the county jail from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001, Justice determined that Blaine County was eligible for approximately $200,000 of compensation for that non-calendar year, Femling said.

He noted that a company hired by the county to consult on and prepare the application for the funds received a 20 percent portion of the total amount received, leaving the county with some $150,000 in extra income.

Figures from the time period examined for the grant show that Blaine County housed inmates for a total of roughly 10,800 "jail days"—a figure which includes the entire length of stay for all inmates.

Jail officials do not have exact figures on how many jail days the county housed criminal illegal residents.

However, Femling said that it can cost the county as much as $70 per day to house each inmate, despite relatively low costs for providing meals. "Personnel really drives up the cost," he said.

Femling said that criminal illegal residents tend to stay at the jail longer than most other criminal offenders because they are generally not released on bail while local authorities process the charges. Typically, the suspects are held in Hailey until they are assigned to the control of an INS agent from Twin Falls.

The proposed jail-management system will "keep data on everything," from dates of bookings and releases, to digital inmate photographs, to the time and amount of medicine an inmate is treated with, Femling said.

Femling said that the new data-recording system at the jail will not only make the facility operate more smoothly, it could help the county protect itself against lawsuits that call into question how an inmate was cared for. "There is a liability issue," he said. "You want to keep good records so you can’t be sued."



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