Extra jail cells generate millions of dollars for Ohio county

By Lauren Pack Staff Writer
Dayton Daily News (Ohio) 
HAMILTON, Ohio — While other area commissioners and sheriffs in the region are juggling beds and bad guys in a constant struggle to house law breakers, Butler County's jail sign always says "vacancy."

"We are the king of the jails right now," said Sheriff Richard Jones.

The 844 bed, state-of-the art facility that opened in 2002 on Hanover Street replaced a small, woefully antiquated jail on Court Street across from the Old Historic Courthouse. Coupled with the county's minimum security jail, Butler County can house 1,235 total prisoners. And, the number will grow in June.

Now, Butler County has plenty of jail space for its own prisoners and then some. The large facility allows the county to reap the financial benefits of housing prisoners from counties in a space squeeze, as well as federal prisoners.

In 2005, revenue from out-ofcounty prisoners was nearly $1 million, according to sheriff's office spokesman Monte Mayer. That grew to $4.1 million last year, and was $2.2 million this year as of April.

Jones, who has worked in the Ohio prison system for more than 30 years, says he is not concerned about vacant beds in the new jail, noting from experience, "If you build it they will come."

Today, Butler County regularly houses 300 prisoners from a bedpoor Hamilton County as well as hundreds of prisoners a year from Montgomery County. The sheriff's office offers a cheaper rate to counties who sign a contract, the sheriff said.

Jones and county commissioners are so confident in the jailing business that finishing touches are being put on a renovation project at the old jail to allow them to house 140 more prisoners. With a price tag of about $800,000 to $1 million and with the help of "free" inmate labor, it is not an inexpensive venture, but one that Jones says will pay for itself with out-of-county prisoner fees.

Exactly who the Court Street jail, slated to open next month, will house has not yet been determined. Jones said the county's juvenile justice center is crowded, the Resolutions Center minimum security jail in Hamilton is usually full, space for female prisoners is often needed and the county is "on the bubble" with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to house immigration violators in the future.

There are plenty of options, he noted.

"You know, so many times counties struggle to get the funding to build a jail, plan it for a couple years, build it, and by the time it opens it is 100 percent or more full," Jones said.

Butler County did not make that mistake.

"That's due to the foresight and planning of the county commissioners," Jones said.

As Butler County grows and the number of drug offenders grows, the need for more jail space will continue, Jones said.

Butler County Common Pleas Judge Keith Spaeth said that because the county has the luxury of readily available jail space, he can decide cases on an individual basis.

"Without jail space, it gets to the point where a judge has to decide if this case is worse than another," Spaeth said. When he took the bench early in his judicial career in Fairfield, at the end of the day he would often have to choose who to let out in order to put someone else behind bars.

"Absolutely, jail space affects how the criminal justice system works," Spaeth said.

Middletown Police Chief Mike Bruck agreed. Readily available jail space equals a safer community. Middletown is one of a disappearing breed in the penal system - a city with a jail that can house 72 inmates for up to a year.

At about $1 million annually to operate, Bruck said it's money well spent, although city leaders regularly examine the operation to make sure it is cost-effective.

"I believe it is a good investment," Bruck said, noting that transporting prisoners to Hamilton for housing in addition to paying for them to stay at the Butler County Jail would be very costly.

The Middletown Jail also houses county prisoners from Madison, Lemon and parts of St. Clair townships, as well as those from the cities of Monroe and Trenton. In exchange, Middletown has a standing booking of a dozen beds at the Butler County Jail free of charge. Those beds are used for prisoners held on felony charges.

"If you are arrested, there is no handing out a summons and sending them on their way and there's no waiting list. You are going to jail at least for the night," Bruck said. He said he believes lawbreakers know they will go to jail in Middletown and it is somewhat of a deterrent.

"Crime is up in the city. We are short on staff. I would hate to think where we would be if we didn't have the jail," Bruck said.

Middletown Municipal Judge Mark W. Wall, who was a longtime defense attorney before donning the black robe, said past studies have shown Middletown's crime rate is less than that of other parts in the county. Wall said that's because of the jail.

"There is a real deterrent effect the closer the punishment (is) to the crime," Wall said.

In addition, the court has a high success rate with offenders completing probation, and he credits the sureness of going to jail as a real incentive for those on probation to walk the straight and narrow.

The old city jail, built in 1977, is below ground and has a bit of a dungeon quality. It is not a favorite among criminals, he said.

"There's not a week that goes by that I don't have someone ask me to sentence them to the county (jail)," Wall said. 
Butler County is in the process of renovating the old county jail on Court Street in Hamilton to give the county more beds for housing inmates. The county uses extra space in its 844-bed jail, opened in 2002 on Hanover Street, to house inmates from other counties.

Copyright 2007 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.

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