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Overcrowding is problem that shouldn’t be left to counties

Staff Report • Oct 1, 2012 at 12:14 PM

It seems as soon as a new county jail is opened, it is already at or near capacity. Officials in Carter County know something about that.

Overcrowded local jails constantly struggle to keep their certification from the Tennessee Corrections Institute. Officials in Unicoi and Washington counties can speak volumes about that. Both counties have recently employed plans to keep their inmate populations in check.

As Press staff writer Becky Campbell reported earlier this month, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Circuit Court clerk’s office are working hard to move inmates from the local jail to a state prison. It’s not an easy process. It takes a lot of time and much paperwork to make it happen.

We suspect the Tennessee Department of Correction likes it that way. The longer a local jail holds a state inmate, the better. State prisons are facing their own crowding problems, even though the DOC has taken extraordinary measures to deal with the issue. One step has been to shorten the time inmates spend behind bars. According to a report by the Pew Center, the state of Tennessee had the fourth-lowest average prison stays in the nation in 2009.

Inmates in Tennessee spend an average of 1.9 years behind bars, which is 6 percent less than they did in 1990. Even with such measures, the state often needs more beds to hold all its inmates.

More alternative sentencing programs would help in addressing overcrowding, as would dealing with the elephant in the room — recidivism. Finding a way to keep parolees from returning to prison, however, has always been a challenge.

Unless the state adds new prison beds, or finds new ways to reduce the inmate population in DOC facilitates, it’s obvious that local jails will continued to be burdened with holding felons. That also means local taxpayers will continued to be burdened with the costs of enlarging county jails.

This is an issue we hope the state General Assembly will tackle when lawmakers return to work in January. It is a far more important issue than most of the tomfoolery legislators occupied themselves with for most of the last session.

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