Mecklenburg County, N.C. – the county seat is Charlotte – has three times the citizenry of Hamilton County, Tn., yet fewer prisoners in its jails than Chattanooga. How does that work for you? The reason is because a good number of those in the Hamilton County lock-up should not be in there. Another key piece to the puzzle is Hamilton County taxpayers now spend $87,000 EACH DAY in corrections costs.
“If we could eliminate our prisoners to just criminals -- alleged or otherwise – do you have any inkling of how much more of the county budget could go to our schools?” Sheriff Jim Hammond has been telling me for years. “We know education is one of the biggest deterrents to crime and our money is far better spent on our future.”
Thus begins what the sheriff envisions as “a total overhaul” of our corrections system. It all started last week when the County Commission and Mayor Jim Coppinger took advantage of the millage rate to raise taxes and initiate a bond issue that will put an additional $325 million into the FY2018 budget.
At the same time, the commissioners approved a long overdue resolution that placed the County Workhouse under the sheriff instead of the mayor (which 93 of the state’s 95 counties have already done.) By doing so, it eliminates the red tape and the tedium from the sheriff’s department and allows Hammond to begin his “master plan” that will most assuredly save millions of dollars.
The $325 million windfall for county government includes approximately $30 million-$35 million to modernize and build an addition to the East Jail, which up until now has been called the Workhouse. “We no longer ‘work’ any prisoners, and most county prisons in the United States have also stopped. The risk of smuggling in contraband and drugs outweighs any good you try to accomplish,” the sheriff explained.
But the snag is that even if construction on the East Jail could begin today, the build-out is about three years away. “We ought to be building a school with that money,” said Hammond. “Nobody likes to build jails but we have no choice. What we can choose is a better way to treat every person who is incarcerated by the county,” the sheriff explained, “and we’ve already been working for months to do just that.”
The biggest part of that is to move the mentally-challenged out of the jails where the psychotropic-drug bill now exceeds $250,000 a year. The sheriff insists that most of the 40 percent of inmates who are administered mental-illness medicine are not criminals … “there is simply nowhere else in our society they can go.”
The problem started 40 years ago when the state of Tennessee began to eliminate psychiatric hospitals. Modern and effective medicines meant patients could be served as out-patients and the reasoning made good sense. What the psychiatrists didn’t realize was how many of these patients would quit taking their medicines without supervision. Social workers being scarce, the mentally-challenged then fall into what’s called “the cycle.”
“They get off their meds and their problems reappear. Soon they do something foolish and get put in jail. We can’t force any type of medicine on somebody but the jail experience is a lot worse than the medicine’s side effects. So they take their medicines, they start acting normal, and they are released. Then something happens, they quit taking their medicine and the cycle starts all over again,” the sheriff explained.
A surprising number of mental patients have cycled through the Hamilton County Jail dozens of times. “We know who they are, what medicines they need, and what we need to do to get them out of jail,” the sheriff said, “but we also know they’ll be back before you know it.”
About a month ago, Sheriff Hammond took a contingent of law enforcement officers, business leaders, medical staff and counselors to Charlotte to see a program similar to the one he hopes to initiate in Hamilton County within the next year. “They have this huge building that resembles a hotel where those who used to be jailed have access to health care, social workers and counselors. It’s fantastic. And the patients – not ‘prisoners’ – appreciate it at less than a third of the cost to the taxpayer.
“In Knoxville they have a three-day ‘hospital’ --- not jail – where the police and sheriff’s deputies take a person instead on the maximum-security jail at far less the cost. A hospital has the authority to make you take medicines – jailers do not – and the Knox County concept is saving its government thousands of dollars,” said the sheriff.
“One more thing … forget the money savings, forget the group homes and all the rest of what we want to do. When a person who is suffering from a mental condition is brought to our jail, it’s the last resort. But that mental patient is somebody’s son, or brother, or mother. This is the right thing to do for another being,” Hammond said.
“We’ve made some great strides. The mental health court, the drug court, the new veteran’s court are all designed to treat people properly. There is not a person on our staff whose primary purpose is not to serve the people,” he said. “All the people … every human being.”
“That’s why we are in meetings every week with our major business and civic groups, our lawmakers and everybody we can gather,” the sheriff said. “My job is to get everybody in the same sand box as we confront mental illness, the homeless, and make sure there is a better alternative to these people’s lives than jail.”
“I believe the savings, both in money and in people, will be incredible and, hey, put this in your story: I’d much rather build schools than jails.”