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Old 06-07-2005, 12:47 PM
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Default Cobb seeks sales tax to enlarge jail

http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/0605/07jail.html

Cobb seeks sales tax to enlarge jail
By RICHARD WHITT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/07/05

The Cobb County Jail, like others in metro Atlanta, is a city of transients where inmates come and go with dizzying frequency.

Unfortunately, too many are coming and too few are going, said Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren. The solution county officials propose is a $110 million jail expansion.

Makeshift sleeping arrangements accommodate inmates in the Cobb County Jail, which has 1,925 beds for an average daily population of about 2,300.

"I don't know of any other thing we can do," Warren said. "Everyone who's in this jail is here because he needs to be."

The expansion would add 900 beds to the facility and be paid for by a 1 percent increase in the county's sales tax.

The jail project is part of a six-year, $826 million sales tax referendum that the County Commission is expected to approve next week. The tax increase — from 5 percent to 6 percent — also would fund a new courthouse and dozens of road improvements if voters approve the referendum on Sept. 20.

Gwinnett County voters last year approved $75 million in bonds to construct a 10-story jail tower of 1,440 beds. It is scheduled to open in 2006.

Cobb officials chose not to use bonds, partly because that would require a property tax increase, Chairman Sam Olens said.

"It was a way to guarantee voters they wouldn't be looking at a property tax increase," Olens said.

Two previous jail expansions, in 1982 and 1992, were funded with bonds, Olens said, and the county is still paying off the 1992 bonds.

Financing a jail with a local sales tax, while unusual in metro Atlanta, isn't unprecedented. Rockdale County spent $26 million of its 1994 local option sales tax on a 400-bed expansion.

Whatever the means of payment, jails throughout the state are in need of space. Last month, 42 county jails in Georgia reported to the state Department of Community Affairs that they were over capacity.

Fulton County is being sued in federal court by former inmates claiming that chronic overcrowding and system failures have led to prisoners being held unlawfully after a judge ordered their release.

Last month, the Gwinnett jail, which has a capacity of 1,204, held 1,842 inmates, according to the DCA, which monitors county jail populations.

Among the five largest metro counties, Clayton and DeKalb have excess jail capacity, but DeKalb has almost twice as many beds as Cobb.

"The problem with overcrowding is that it breaks down everything," said Fayette County Deputy Robert Glaze, a vice president of the Georgia Jail Association. "The kitchen can't supply enough food. You can't classify the inmates. You just have to put them in together."

In Cobb, about 38,000 people — more than 100 per day — passed through the jail last year. The daily population averages about 2,300 in a facility with 1,925 beds, jail officials said.

Overflow inmates sleep on 8-inch-high temporary cots crowded into day rooms. Crowding increases stress and tension among the inmates and creates a safety problem for guards, Deputy Chief Linda Coker said.

Cobb officials are concerned that if something isn't done to relieve the overcrowding, the federal courts will step in and order the county to expand the jail. In 1982, Cobb voters approved the bond issue to expand the jail after a federal judge ordered a cap on the number of jail inmates, Coker said.

Warren wants it made clear that safety and the likelihood of federal court intervention, not prisoner comfort, are driving the need.

"Some people say they don't care if inmates sleep on the floor," Warren said. "That's not my concern. Overcrowding is the issue.

"My concern is not that they be comfortable."

Warren said expanding the jail is a foregone conclusion. If voters don't approve the sales tax increase, it's likely a federal judge will intervene, he said. And if that happens, the burden of paying for a new facility likely will fall on property owners.

Since the last jail expansion in 1992, Cobb's population has increased from about 476,000 to more than 642,000, according to census figures. The jail population has increased accordingly.

Only a cooperative effort by the courts, solicitors and circuit defenders to "expedite justice" has made the situation manageable, said Sheriff's Deputy Col. J. Lewis Alder, who heads the detention division.

Cobb is using video conferences between the jail and magistrate judges for inmates' first court appearances so that prisoners who qualify can make bond quickly.

The county has started a work-release program that lets inmates keep their jobs and pay for their board, child support and fines.

And each week, State and Superior court judges conduct hearings at the jail to speed up the system.

"We seize every opportunity to manage our jail population," Alder said, "and we're still over capacity."
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