Georgia Sheriffs Address Jail Issues

Article excerpt

In Georgia and throughout the country, jails perform an important role in the criminal justice system. Currently, functional jails exist in 148 of Georgia's 159 counties. The costs related to the administration, maintenance and operation of these facilities are borne by county units of government, however, Georgia law mandates that the responsibility for all operational matters lies exclusively with the sheriff.

Whenever concerns are identified by Georgia sheriffs, it is the responsibility of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association to respond with a review of the origin and causes of the issues and to seek practical and economic solutions. Beginning in 1995, GSA began to receive requests for technical and operational assistance and advice regarding all aspects of jail design, maintenance and operations. During the same period, inmate lawsuits filed against sheriffs and county governing authorities reinforced the need for facility and staffing analysis assistance, policy development guidance and jail officer training. As the professional organization of Georgia's 159 elected sheriffs, the association represented their greatest hope to address these issues. As a result, in 1997, the Georgia Jail Assistance Program was initiated using funds provided by a federal grant.

During the years leading up to the inception of this program, many questions and concerns regarding the operation of county jails remained unaddressed. A number of county jails were under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice as a result of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Jail populations rose, and in addition to detaining those awaiting trial, county jails were housing large numbers of state-sentenced inmates awaiting transfer to the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections. For sheriffs, jail crowding created litigation by inmates, increased staff and inmate tensions, accelerated wear and tear on facilities and equipment, created budgetary shortfalls due to the need for overtime staffing, and caused an overall inability to meet program and service standards.

Most jails in Georgia have an inmate capacity of 150 or fewer. The sheriffs of these small facilities responded to a GSA survey that indicated the lack of necessary resources to provide proper planning and research activities within their organizations' administrative operations. Additionally, few counties possessed the financial resources to employ outside consultation to offer management expertise for complex problem resolution. Finally, there had been a lack of established policies or procedures for jail operations and very little in-service training was available to jail staff regarding basic operating procedures. Since jails varied greatly in capacity, design, age and condition, each situation warranted an individual response to begin addressing fundamental operational concerns.

Program Concerns

It became apparent that immediate action was critical to enhance the safety of nearly 4,000 jail officers, provide appropriate custodial care for offenders committed to jails and reduce litigation. With these concerns in mind. Georgia sheriffs initiated the Jail Assistance Program to develop methods aimed at addressing these considerable administrative, security and staffing issues.

To date, six major concerns have been identified as a result of the sheriffs' jail assistance initiative. The first concerned federal court mandates, which resulted from federal court rulings relating to inmates complaints about crowding and poor conditions. Due to litigation, courts had become increasingly involved in the management and operation of local jails and had imposed requirements that sheriffs were unprepared to address from a management or budgetary perspective.

In addition to the federal court intervention, sheriffs found that more and more cases were being filed by the DOJ under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. …