By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Hall County Jail staffing shortage leads to policy changes
Recruiting, retention challenges mean inmates must be boarded elsewhere or released
Hall county jail
The Hall County Jail

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is working to reduce the population at its jail because of a lack of staffing.

The office two weeks ago started to explore ideas such as boarding some inmates in other counties and identifying inmates who could be released for house arrest or pretrial supervision.

There’s plenty of room in the jail, but the office is short an entire shift of jailers.

A full shift of jailers is 24, but the county has been as low as 18 per shift due to employee recruitment and retention problems. The office supplements with overtime and deputies from other divisions.

Starting pay for certified deputies/officers

Georgia State Patrol: $46,422

Banks County Sheriff’s Office: $40,000

Gwinnett County Police: $38,777

Hall County Sheriff’s Office: $37,658

Gainesville Police: $35,543

With 1,026 beds, the county housed 689 inmates in its jail Thursday. That’s down from 802 on Dec. 4 and an average of 943 in April.

Judges, prosecutors and the public defender’s office released 104 by “identifying inmates that would be eligible for house arrest or some type of pretrial supervision through probation,” Sheriff Gerald Couch said.

For some low-level offenders, options other than jail time include community service, counseling and paying fees while checking in with a pretrial intervention and diversion supervisor.

The cases considered were nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level offenses.

“They looked at people who were in there perhaps who had a bond set and couldn’t make it. They went to pretrial release on a special condition order and will report to pretrial release,” court administrator Reggie Forrester said.

Forrester said others in the jail down to the final days of their sentence were discharged early.

Other inmates have been boarded out. Thirty were boarded as of Friday in Dawson and Jackson counties. Jackson County is receiving $35 per inmate per day; the arrangement with Dawson at the moment is more informal.

The average cost of housing an inmate in Hall County is about $50 per day.

“Bear in mind that boarding out involves a lot more than just the boarding cost itself,” Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks said. “Transporting board-outs takes two deputies’ time, plus fuel and vehicle usage costs, so there’s more than what meets the eye here.”

Couch said he wants to “relieve some of the pressure and stress because of our staffing levels in the jail.”

“If we can continue on this path with the court system ... to closely examine our inmate population and putting those folks in either house arrest or pretrial, we may not have to do any board-outs at all. We may be able to pull them back. I’m hopeful of that,” Couch said, adding he was appreciative of the collaboration.

The department added another $100,000 to cover overtime in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

Local agencies are having trouble finding qualified candidates and retaining them when lured away by better pay. The jail “feeds” the rest of the department, with jailers starting their training there until they become certified deputies and are qualified to move to other divisions, Couch said.

“I’ve never seen a time in law enforcement as it is now, because it’s so competitive in recruitment,” Couch said. “The issue that we have is that we’re sort of on the low end of being able to offer the benefits, the pay and the retirement that other agencies do. We need to be on the upper end, the higher end of that.”

A certified deputy in Hall takes home $37,658, $1,000 less than a Gwinnett County officer. State law enforcement including Georgia State Patrol recently received 20 percent salary increases, which raised a trooper’s pay to $46,422.

Before the Great Recession, Hall County offered an 8 percent match on employees’ 401(a) retirement plans. Employees get only 4 percent this year.

Couch said he is learning from exit interviews that many are leaving for better benefits. The average stay of a Hall County Sheriff’s Office employee is 4.5 years.

“I could have a police department come in and basically cherry-pick, offer that guy a job. They will in turn pay us for their academy time, but look at all that other investment that we have in them that we’re losing,” Couch said. That includes salary and other training.

Couch said he has been in conversations with county officials regarding officer retention, adding he hopes there is a resolution soon.

“I care about my people here, and they’re working hard and they have been for a long time,” he said. “They’ll continue to do so. They just need to be better compensated for that.”

The county is six months away from a new budget cycle, and Commissioner Scott Gibbs said it would be hard to make adjustments until then.

“We as a community have to decide what level of service that we want in public safety and are we willing to pay for it,” Couch said.

Regional events