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As Hall jail population rises, staff stretched thin
With other counties inmates gone, mix of factors to blame for increase
Hall county jail
The Hall County Jail

Jail stats

• Hall County Jail beds: 1,026

• June 12 inmate population: 938

• Inmates on Superior Court probation warrants: 316

• Inmates on State Court warrants or pending charges: 191

• Recommended number of officers on each shift: 27-30

• Actual number of officers on each shift: 20-23 (Does not include officers in training)

In August 2011, the Hall County Jail reached 98 percent capacity with an average of more than 400 inmates from other counties filling the beds.

Six years later and with a smaller staff, county officials said the jail is reaching this threshold again with almost exclusively Hall County inmates.

As a result, the Sheriff’s Office has requested 10 new jailer positions to handle the growing population.

According to a Georgia Sheriff’s Association study conducted in 2013, the jail staff was recommended to have 27 to 30 officers on each shift. Deputy Stephen Wilbanks said the number currently is 20 to 23, though that doesn’t take in to account the seven to 10 officers in training at all times.

Wilbanks said these increased numbers can be attributed to some of the statewide criminal justice reforms passed in the 2011 legislative session. Those reforms changed standards on felonies and misdemeanors for theft and other crimes.

“We see a lot of numbers increasing because what was previously felonies are now misdemeanors, and that falls on the county jail’s responsibilities to house those inmates,” he said.

With House Bill 1176 in 2011, the felony threshold for theft was raised from $500 to $1,500, and judges were given wider discretion to sentence cases as misdemeanors. According to the Senate Research Office, the threshold was last adjusted in 1982. Now, the thresholds are closer to those in neighboring states.

The felony threshold for shoplifting went from $300 to $500, and the legislature also created a fourth-degree forgery misdemeanor charge. Having a forged check for less than $1,500 or having fewer than 10 forged checks “without a specified amount in a fictitious name” would result in a misdemeanor charge.

Most misdemeanors in Georgia have a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000, but county jails are responsible for these offenders as compared to state prisons holding felons.

The sheriff’s office was unable to provide data on the misdemeanor increase, but analyses provided to The Times by the pretrial release department illustrate a different issue.

On June 12, there were 938 inmates at the jail, 316 of them on a Superior Court probation warrant. Superior Court handles felony cases, while State Court adjudicates misdemeanors.

Between inmates held on State Court arrest orders, bench warrants or pending charges, only 191 inmates were involved with misdemeanor cases. There are another 43 inmates serving time at the jail.

Case numbers are high overall at the public defender’s office, attorney Brett Willis said. Though he could not comment on a misdemeanor-felony split, Willis said one of the biggest increases he has seen was in the felony aggravated assault statute.

“The aggravated assault statute was changed to more specifically permit prosecutions that were previously misdemeanors as felonies when there is strangulation is involved,” he said.

Willis said the reform has been “nothing but good” for clients, particularly for first-time drug possession convictions.

Public Defender’s Office Chief Investigator Anthony Cantrell is part of a committee tackling the probation warrant issue by getting the cases resolved faster.

“It may not get them out of custody because (probation) may be revoked by the judge or by a waiver, which means they have to serve some time, but our committee was started to try to get the process done quicker,” he said.

After an arrest on a probation warrant, a person can sign a waiver that may lead to a reduced punishment or release. If the waiver is turned down, the case goes to a judge.

Before the committee started its work, the most extreme waiting times have been 30 days. Cantrell now works directly with one officer, leading to a few days’ turnaround for clients.

In the past 10 days, the committee has resolved 80 jail cases.

Before the committee’s work, the issue was working with all of the officers in a department hit by turnover.

“One (probation) person might do the warrant, and if the person was picked up six months later, (the probation employee) may not be there. So I’m having to hunt to find out who’s going to handle the case now,” Cantrell said.

In April, the average number of inmates was 943 in the 1,026-bed Hall jail, tops for the year so far. The numbers resemble those of 2011 and years preceding when the county was boarding in more than 400 inmates, primarily from Forsyth and Fulton counties.

Wilbanks said a county will request to board an inmate to another county because of a safety or capacity concern. The requesting county is responsible for the expenses; Fulton County paid $3.7 million in 2010 for its inmates.

Fulton began removing its inmates in 2012, and the jail’s daily average of inmates boarded from elsewhere hasn’t been more than 50 since October 2015, according to data provided to The Times.

“We brought our manpower numbers down, because the county was in a financial crisis and we were eliminating positions through attrition. Unfilled positions — we wouldn’t fill those so we could remove those from the budget,” Wilbanks said.

The result has been rampant overtime and a jail staff “stretched really thin,” Wilbanks said.

“Because the jail is such a safety-critical area, we have to have minimum staffing levels, and what that has translated into for our average jailers is a great deal of overtime. If we can’t get volunteers, we have to start imposing mandatory overtime,” he said.

A jail employee works a 12-hour shift on normal days and often has training and court appearances on off days. Peace Officer Standards and Training-certified officers need 20 hours of training annually to keep their certifications.

“When we start working people that hard, fatigue sets in. Their situational awareness goes down, and in the jail, that’s a terrible combination,” Wilbanks said.

Fulton County inmates causing damage or starting fights would then make it a revolving door back in to the Hall County justice system.

“They’re creating new charges on themselves, so now all of a sudden they’ve become a Hall County burden in the sense that they have to go through our court system to answer for the charges they committed while they were here in our jail. Some of those things are hard to put a dollar figure on,” Wilbanks said.

The jail has 14 vacancies among 209 positions. Eight deputies are on loan from the courthouse annex project, which is slated to open in January. The annex will house Juvenile and Probate courts, opening up space in the main courthouse.

Wilbanks said the jail is really about 25 officers short for a full shift.

“We hope that goes a little distance toward putting a band-aid on the problem right now until we can get our numbers back up,” Wilbanks said.

 

 

 
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