While crowding at the Loudon County Justice Center continues to remain at least 50 people over its certification limit as outlined by the Tennessee Corrections Institute, the county is now in the process of commissioning a needs assessment study to evaluate inmate populations, jail and courtroom security and the potential for either upgrading the current facility or building a new jail.
The Loudon County Corrections Partnership earlier this month voted to award a contract to Moseley Architects to perform and fund the feasibility study, which will be conducted in conjunction with Knoxville-based Hodge Associates.
The study will cost $27,500, and contractors have 120 days to conduct the study and report back to the committee, Loudon County Purchasing Director Leo Bradshaw said.
"That's going to be a big part of their study is to recommend from an efficiency and cost standpoint whether it is more economically better to add on to this existing structure and renovate or to actually build a whole new complex with your courtrooms and everything in one building," Bradshaw said, noting that seven companies submitted proposals. Moseley provided the third lowest bid.
Bradshaw said after the study, the county could get a discount if Moseley was also awarded a contract on future design or construction work.
"If Moseley is chosen to do the architecture work for the building itself then they would deduct $12,000 from that fee or give you credit for that much toward the next stage," Bradshaw said. Jail Administrator Teresa Smith said the jail is currently operating at about 55 inmates more than capacity.
"I've seen it more crowded, but we're still over; we're over probably 55 on a daily basis," Smith said. The jail feasibility study would only provide current information on the jail and population projections, Jim Hart, jail consultant with the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service, said. The study does not take into account any future construction plans.
"This assessment is looking at all of that and at the conclusion of that assessment it will bring some validation to what those that are inside there working day in and day out sort of know, but (it will) put some actual numbers and actual projections to what the needs are and give some options," Hart said. "It's not a document to start designing anything. It's a document to evaluate what you have and look at some options."
One idea that has been floated to assist in mitigating jail overcrowding was authorizing pre-trial releases for certain inmates.
Lenoir City resident Wayne Schnell said county officials have been "very receptive" to alternative plans.
"I think it would help, it sure would, but they have to look into it and make sure it works for what they do," Schnell said.
Smith said while pre-trial releases may help in some cases, the general problem of jail crowding will remain.
"My only thing is you look at probation, and they get right back in here if they hit their third, fourth or fifth offense violations," Smith said. "What's the difference? I think it's a good idea for certain offenders that aren't violent to try it at least, but I just don't know that it would work any better. ... It would be different if they could follow the rules, but they don't tend to follow the rules."
Smith said repeat offenders present the largest challenge in jail overcrowding.
"Definitely, it's something we would consider or look into," Smith said about pre-trial releases. "I don't think it would be enough. It might help four or five years down the road a little, but, in my opinion, it's not going to be enough to solve the problem we've got right now. That's still going to have to be addressed."
Hart said General Sessions Court Judge Rex Dale and the Loudon County Sheriff's Office were already taking proactive steps to cut down on the number of people who are being sent to the jail.
"I think pretty much every county looks at various alternatives, whether it be sentencing alternatives or pre-trial release alternatives," Hart said. "It helps balance out the number of people behind bars. Not every person who makes a mistake needs actual incarceration, and incarceration is expensive. (It's) expensive to the housing, expensive to the taxpayers and expensive to the communities."
The dual problems of repeat offenders and probation violations are not unique to Loudon County, Hart said.
"I've got a good feel talking to the folks there in that community that they really work hard to give them every opportunity, every chance to avoid incarceration, but at some point and time enough is enough," Hart said.
Smith said members of the Loudon County Corrections Partnership and the LCSO were attempting to look well into the future to assess needs.
"We're trying to project out 15 to 20 years from now so the county doesn't have to go through this every time you turn around because pre-planning is cheaper than having to start over from scratch every five years," Smith said, noting that Loudon County officials wanted to avoid mistakes that were made in surrounding counties.
"I feel bad for Roane County," Smith said. "They've got a nice facility, but it's less than four years old, and they're already overcrowded, and it's not the sheriff department's fault. They (county commission) didn't do what they recommended and asked for."