County weighs options on jail

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald
Loudon County officials got their first detailed look Monday at a jail feasibility study that outlined plans to either renovate the existing Justice Center property or build a new standalone facility that would accommodate detention, courtroom facilities and Sheriff's Office space in one location.

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Russell Johnson, who was serving as chairman of the meeting in the absence of Judge Rex Dale, said the top priority in considering construction was addressing inmate overcrowding and a pending decertification from the state.

"As district attorney, I've noted a number of problems we've had with the jail overcrowding as far as not being able to segregate prisoners, especially female overcrowding, and then you're putting DUI offenders who are not otherwise criminals in areas with folks where there could be some potential problems, and that's a serious concern for the county, in my opinion, that needs to be addressed," Johnson said.

He said other considerations included courtroom security, which he deemed was a "liability concern" for the county, clerk and courtroom functions being housed in one location and future growth and expansion.

Dan Mace, vice president with Moseley Architects, said the first option included the construction of a new facility to house all law enforcement and court operations in one location. The plan includes a 278-bed facility with a capacity of 400 inmates at an estimated cost of $47.3 million. Jail and courtroom space is about 85,000 square feet, and additional sheriff's office space totals 22,500 square feet.

The second option, which would cost about $24 million, is for the construction of a jail only, with courtroom space and law enforcement administrative offices to be figured into future plans.

The third option, which will cost $44 million, is to build new jail and courtroom space and utilize the existing Justice Center for law enforcement office space.

"There's just a $3 million savings between doing that and doing the whole thing; the only thing you're doing here you're utilizing the old Justice Center," Johnson said about the third option.

Functions at Loudon County Courthouse, which is currently being used to hold circuit and criminal court, should be reconsidered, Mace said.

"It's our findings and recommendation as your study planning group that you've got a very significant architectural gem in that historic courthouse, and what we're seeing is that these historic courthouses need to be repurposed," Mace said. "They don't need to be abandoned and shuttered, but we need to find a suitable repurpose that isn't a justice issue."

He said the existing Justice Center had structural and heating, ventilation and air conditioning issues.

"What we're seeing is that building's really starting to strain itself with its age and its need for a lot of maintenance as you go forward to keep that building in good shape," Mace said. "Some people may say there's some good money on bad there, but we've got several options that we'll go over. Again, we're encouraging the county to repurpose that building and/or find a way to expand it."

Todd Davis, director of criminal justice planning and development with Moseley, said based on projections, Loudon County could expect to admit more than 3,400 inmates in 2015, and that number could increase to 5,300 by 2040. The company projected an intake of more than 3,200 prisoners through the end of 2013.

"I was pretty amazed at how Loudon County has grown and has continued to grow," Davis said. "... With growth comes inmates, unfortunately."

Mace said he anticipated current growth trends in the county will continue into the future.

"What you have now are some serious space needs," Mace said. "You don't have enough storage. You don't have the safety and security. You've got people crammed into every nook and cranny trying to use your existing spaces, so you've got some urgent needs now, but over the duration of any solution, we recommend that you plan for doubling the size of your service delivery on your justice site."

Davis said if the county builds a new jail but doesn't address the court system, inmate populations will increase over projections.

"We understand that your most stressing need is the jail to alleviate the overcrowding to prevent decertification," Davis said. "But if you don't do anything with your courts, they're already so grossly overtaxed the way they are now, then what that's going to do is slow down the process of hearing jail cases because the courts are so limited, so my 15-year projection on bed needs is now going to meet that point in about 10 years."

Mace said any construction plan the county put in place will need to be expandable to address future needs.

Moseley did not consider a potential site for a future jail, but Mace said the current Justice Center site was not feasible, largely because of limited parking space and topographical issues.

The jail committee will hold a workshop at noon Dec. 3 at the county office building to further consider construction plans. A special called meeting for the public and full commission will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 7 at Loudon County Courthouse Annex.