Loudon Commission explores new jail, court complex

Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

LOUDON The Loudon County Commission continues to explore a range of options that might help scale back proposals for a new jail and court complex.

A $27,000 study by an engineering firm specializing in jails recommended a 280-bed facility along with eight new courtrooms and offices for the court at a cost as high as $47 million..

At a workshop last week Commissioner Leo Bradshaw, who is also a member of the Jail Study Committee, questioned whether the commission should be exploring the construction of a new complex. Unless there was support for a large tax increase, the commission should be looking at less expensive options, he said.

"The least we have to do is to come into compliance," he said.

Currently, the jail is certified for 97 inmates but during peak periods as many as 160 to 170 inmates have been housed. Sheriff Tim Guider has also raised concerns about officer safety due to the outdated design of the current jail.

The need to come into compliance with state regulations is driven by the increased possibility of being sued if an accident or some incident occurs due to overcrowding, Bradshaw said.

Commissioner Van Shaver said the jail would not be able to house state inmates if it was not certified. About 15 to 20 state inmates are typically in custody, he said. A state report for December showed the jail was 13 inmates over capacity but that there were 17 state inmates.

"It seems obvious that the quickest fix would be to stop housing state inmates," he said.

An expansion of the jail for about $12 million to $14 million would require a tax increase of about 5 cents. A more extensive renovation involving new construction would cost about $24 million for a property tax increase of 8 or 9 cents.

"I'd like to do it for the lowest amount possible," said Commissioner Henry Cullen.

The commission also discussed the need to provide more courtroom space and judicial resources.

The issue of jail overcrowding is linked to the backlog in the courts, Shaver pointed out. A lot of the inmates are in the jail awaiting trial, he said.

In the December report, the county was housing 42 pretrial felony inmates and 19 pretrial misdemeanor inmates.

"When overcrowding is a problem could Loudon County possibly work out something to house some prisoners in Knox and Anderson County till they go to court?" Shaver asked.

With so many pretrial felony inmates taking space in the jail, Shaver questioned whether there would there be any way to expedite the judicial process to dispose of these inmate cases where they could be moved to state facilities if found guilty.

Among the other options discussed to relieve overcrowding in the jail included allowing inmates awaiting trial to do so at home under house arrest and the possibility of using night court to relieve the back log.

General Sessions judge Rex Dale has addressed the commission in the last few months asking for additional resources in the courts

In a budget committee meeting held before the workshop last week, Dale presented a budget to add a second judge and several part-time judicial commissioners. The additional personnel could be added for a cost between $105,000 and $145,000 depending on whether or not the new judicial commissioners received benefits.

The News Sentinel has made several requests for court records that would substantiate the increased caseload in Loudon County General Sessions Court and the backlog of cases claimed by Dale. Dale referred the request to Circuit Court Clerk, Lisa Niles.

Niles said it would be hard to determine just how many cases are being delayed because the records are not structured to provide such data. She said she knows the court system is overburdened because of the effect it has on her office.

Niles' office is currently pursuing legal action against the county asking for more employees, raises for existing employees and other resources.