Springfield's Police Chief Says Many Would Be Prisoners Free Due to New County Jail Policy

May 13, 2015

Inside of the Greene County Jail
Credit ozarksfirst.com

Overcrowding at the Greene County Jail has been a problem for a long time.  And recently, because of that problem, Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott stopped accepting municipal inmates at the jail.  KSMU's Michele Skalicky looks at the impact of that decision.

April 3rd at 5 pm, Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott stopped accepting municipal inmates from cities across the county at the Greene County Jail.

He made the move to deal with the current overcrowding situation at the jail, which he said, “has reached a critical point for many years.”  According to Major Kevin Spaulding, who oversees the county’s Corrections Division, when looking for a solution, they started with who they are legally required to house.  By state and federal law, he said, the sheriff is required to accept all persons charged with either a state or federal charge.  He pointed out that if the facility is full, the only individuals the sheriff can refuse to accept are those charged with municipal ordinance violations.

Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said, in the first month of the change, the city’s police officers encountered 327 individuals who had municipal warrants issued by a judge.  Instead of booking them into the jail, they were released on their own recognizance and given a new court date.

There were 59 people who police normally would have arrested on municipal charges such as DWI or stealing who were booked into jail on a corresponding state charge instead.

Chief Williams said he understands why the sheriff did what he did, but he was surprised when it happened.

"We've talked about this for years.  I've been here for five years, and it preceded me getting here that this has been on the discussion table.  It's just I'm surprised at the timing and the immediacy of it and the fact that it singled out a particular group of prisoners as opposed to looking at all prisoners in general and the overcrowding issue and working on things," he said.

Since the week of April 13, Municipal Court judge and prosecutors have been tracking the impact of the city not having jail space for municipal inmates.  They found that shock time in the jail was not available for multiple DWI defendants with prior DWIs.  During a recent peace disturbance, defendants with “serious criminal histories” who were “noncompliant with police” were unable to be taken to jail to defuse the situation, according to the City of Springfield. 

And Williams said Municipal Court judges aren’t able to sentence those convicted of a municipal crime to jail.

"Taking that away from the judge and away from the court system and away from the prosecutor's office is a bigger problem that, if this continues much longer, will make the situation much worse," he said.

Williams said the county has had a “Book and Release” policy in place for 15 years where some felony offenders are booked into the jail and then immediately released because there’s not space to hold them.  Sheriff Arnott said he will soon do away with that policy.  He said “it makes no sense…to allow so many felons to be released while prioritizing incarcerations of misdemeanors or civil municipal ordinance violations.”  He said the move to not accept municipal inmates was needed because there’s just not enough space.  There are currently 23 inmates housed at the Cedar County Jail on state warrants due to space issues, according to Arnott.

Williams said the jail overcrowding began soon after the facility was built-- it was full just two years after it opened in 2001.  At some point, he said, a new, larger facility will be needed.

According to Williams, Springfield has grown by “leaps and bounds” over the last decade, and the justice system hasn’t kept pace.

"We've had crime issues, and as we address those and we put more officers on the street, more deputies on the street we solve more crimes, arrest more people, get them in the system and then you have bottlenecks throughout the system," he said.

City and county officials continue working to find solutions.  According to Major Spaulding, the sheriff, the county commission, the City of Springfield and others continue to meet regularly to talk about the issue. 

Williams pointed out one short-term solution:  when people are convicted in state court and sentenced to time in jail, he said the Department of Corrections needs to transfer them to state facilities when they’re supposed to and reimburse Greene County for the time they’ve spent in the county jail.

"Something that hasn't been happening at the full rate for a long period of time," he said.

But he said, long-term, the situation is going to require input and approval from citizens as to how to address the problem.

"What are they comfortable with and what resources are they gonna give those of us who work within the system to work with and try to address some of the problems," he said.

He’s optimistic a solution will eventually be found.  He said there’s a “very good level of collaboration and cooperation between all entities involved.”

But he said, if they come up with a solution and citizens don’t agree to it, they’ll have to make do with what they have.

"And at some point the public is gonna have to let us know what they're comfortable with, what level of crime, what level of incarceration, what level of processing people through the system and how that's gonna impact everybody where they live," he said.

Major Spaulding said it’s “impossible to say” how long the jail will continue to refuse to accept municipal inmates.  Sheriff Arnott said he’ll accept municipal inmates as soon as space is available.