Sullivan sheriff gets funding for 10 new deputies for pretrial release program

J. H. Osborne • Nov 25, 2019 at 9:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission has approved Sheriff Jeff Cassidy’s request for money to hire 10 new deputies in order to launch a “pretrial release” program. The goal is to move nonviolent inmates who haven’t yet been to trial from the overcrowded county jail to their homes. The new officers will be trained and dedicated to monitoring inmates granted approval for participation in the program.

The cost: $817,000 to get the program up and running for the rest of this budget year (that money will come from the county’s fund balance); and an estimated $564,800 per year in recurring costs beginning July 1, 2020. That’s about 2 cents on the county’s property tax rate, according to comments from commissioners prior to the vote, which was 20 “yes,” three absent, and an “abstain” from Commissioner Alicia Starnes.

But the cost could be offset if it reduces the county’s potential liability for longtime, ongoing overcrowding in its two jail facilities.

Cassidy first publicly introduced his plan to start the program a week after a $3 million federal lawsuit against the county was filed by a former inmate. That lawsuit seeks to be designated a class-action suit, which means other inmates and former inmates could join it and up the amount of money being sought.

Cassidy, speaking to the Sullivan County Commission early this month — and joined at the podium by Jail Administrator Lee Carswell — said he had a list of 91 inmates he believes suitable for the program immediately. Cassidy said it will save money compared to keeping those 91 people in jail at a cost of $35 per inmate per day.

The sheriff doesn’t have the authority to release inmates, even into a pretrial program. That has to be approved by a judge.

Several of the county’s judges, along with District Attorney General Barry Staubus, attended and spoke during the special called meeting of the County Commission, at which Cassidy proposed implementation of the program. The sole purpose of the meeting was to seek input and answers from the county’s judicial and law enforcement officials.The resolution requesting the meeting was sponsored by Starnes. It asked those officials to develop and present to the County Commission plans to reduce the inmate population in the short term.

Judge James Goodwin spoke in favor of the pretrial release program, but he said Cassidy was being conservative with his estimates, in his opinion. Goodwin said he thinks up to 300 inmates could qualify for such a program — and to handle that level Cassidy would need 10 to 15 new deputies.

Cassidy said the program has been very successful for other Tennessee counties, including Knox County.

Cassidy said he, County Attorney Dan Street and others had recently visited Knox County to learn firsthand about the program. He said Knox County has more than 1,000 participants in the pretrial release program. Those who agree to participate are monitored, through personal visits, by deputies assigned that job. Participants know they must submit to drug tests and have given permission for searches at any time.

In recent weeks, Sullivan County has been housing nearly 1,000 inmates, more than 300 over its certified capacity.

Sullivan County came close to losing state certification for its jails — a move that would cause a loss of state funding and potentially put county taxpayers on the hook to pay for ensuing lawsuits — in 2014. It has been allowed to maintain its certification only because the county has been able to show it is working toward a solution to ongoing overcrowding.

Sullivan County taxpayers could be footing the bill for anywhere from $69.3 million to $168.4 million for new and/or renovated jail facilities, based on a presentation from a consulting firm hired to study how to solve the overcrowding problem. And that’s in today’s dollars. With an estimated completion time of three years out, or more, the estimated cost could rise by the time construction takes place.