Blount County Justice Center

The Blount County jail sits behind the Justice Center in April 2014 on East Lamar Alexander Parkway. 

Joy Kimbrough | The Daily Times

The author of a report on jail overcrowding in Blount County has issued a scathing memo publicly criticizing officials for failing to act on it quickly enough.

Consultant Alan Kalmanoff, executive director of the Institute for Law and Policy Planning, issued an open memo to members of the Blount County Corrections Partnership in anticipation of a meeting scheduled for Tuesday evening that ended up being canceled.

"The ILPP report finds that simple efficiencies to hasten the work of the unmanaged justice system, and using community drug treatment/mental health program slots and inexpensive drug treatment beds (such as is reported in Chattanooga), would greatly improve public safety, especially inside the jail for corrections officers,” he wrote.

“It also would repatriate large numbers of incriminated addicted and impoverished locals who need treatment rather than forced destruction of their minimal economic base and traditionally strong family structures. The need for additional jail beds is being driven by a stated desire by the sheriff for more revenue to house even more federal prisoners, not for local offenders.”

Sheriff James Berrong had no comment on Tuesday. His spokeswoman said he had not seen the memo yet.

Kalmanoff had been scheduled to meet with members of the BCCP via video conference Tuesday evening, but a cancellation notice was sent out early that afternoon at the direction of BCCP Chairman Jeff Headrick.

According to the notice, Headrick canceled the meeting due to conflicts with scheduling with County Technical Advisory Service consultant Jim Hart and Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington. Headrick could not be reached for further comment.

Report covered up?

In the memo, Kalmanoff  alleges the report has been kept from public review; however, the report was sent to the County Commission as an informational item in November 2014 even as the BCCP continued to meet to discuss options.

”ILPP well knows that people from Tennessee, and Blount County, do not like to be told what to do by outsiders, even if the outsiders are disinterested or have no values for punishing crime that differ from their own; nor do they like to be lied to or fooled by cover-ups and false claims by their own elected officials,” he wrote. “Caught between these two forces, and many fine individuals working in the Blount County system, and asking for over a year to present the report to the County Commission, ILPP has been forced now to present only remotely, via video.

“ILPP is compelled to call greater attention to our outside and independent report, paid for by the taxpaying citizens of Blount County, by publishing this public memo and our most important among many recommendations, least they be further kept from public discussion.”

Commissioner ‘troubled’

The cancellation did not sit well with County Commissioner Tona Monroe, a member of the committee. “As the commissioner who made the motion to have a full commission presentation from the jail consultant on the criminal justice system assessment report, I am troubled that the meeting was canceled,” she said.

“Obviously, some county officials aren’t happy with the conclusions of the independent report. The report was supposed to be heard by the full commission last year, yet there has been no presentation to the commission and it has been delayed once again.

“Nearly $95,000 of taxpayer money has been spent. We owe it to the people of Blount County to have a thorough public discussion on our justice system and jail overcrowding problem.   

”The report makes some of the same recommendations that the Tennessee Corrections Institute makes, including reducing the number of federal prisoners and providing more pretrial release and alternative sentencing programs. The report points out that our jail may be unconstitutional and that we could face legal action if we don’t reduce our jail population.

“The jail overcrowding situation is dangerous not only to the inmates but to the taxpayers who may be forced to fund an unnecessary jail expansion.”

Failed inspection

The jail is facing overcrowding issues and failed a Tennessee Corrections Institute inspection in June 2012 due to overcrowding. According to an earlier presentation by Kalmanoff, without major changes in policy and procedure in Blount County’s criminal justice system, the only choice will be the construction of a bigger jail with an additional 635 beds, which could cost between $68 to $124 million. 

The staffing required would cost at least $10 million per year in new funding, according to estimates. 

Some of Kalmanoff’s recommendations include expanding the Blount County Drug Court, creating a drug court specifically for General Sessions Court, and establishing a residential drug court program. 

Another suggestion is that instead of incarcerating people who are in violation of probation for not paying court costs and fines, they be put in a work program. 

The jail is only certified for 350 inmates. According to the report, the average daily population of the jail during 2013 was 509. 

The surplus inmate population includes federal and state inmates. Holding federal and state inmates brings in revenue that helps offset jail costs. The county receives $58.50 per inmate per day for federal prisoners and $37 per inmate per day for state prisoners. 

The problem is the per diem payment per prisoner is not enough, according to the study. State law sets the per diem rate for state prisoners, but the federal rate can be negotiated.

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