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Editorial: Lawrence jail issues can't go unresolved for much longer

Apr. 01, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

Officials in Lawrence County, Ohio, have been wrestling with conditions in that county's jail for at least 15 years, but remain no closer to finding a long-term solution.

They, as well as officials in Ohio, should realize that problems associated with the jail can't go on forever, and finding a remedy -- although it may be painful financially -- should become a priority.

A recent Ohio state report recommended 15 changes to the local jail. Among them were better lighting, appointment of a jail administrator, ensuring all the locks are operational and limiting the number of inmates in the jail at one time to 55. The county often exceeds that number now and frequently has to pay other counties to house Lawrence County inmates to keep the inmate count even close to 55.

As Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless told the county's newly appointed Jail Resolution Committee last week, if the county made any major additions or renovations, the jail would become subject to updated regulations and could house only 16 prisoners. That's a sign of how far outdated the current 40-year-old structure is.

Money, of course, is the major stumbling block. Building a new jail would cost several million dollars at minimum, and it's difficult for financially strapped Lawrence County to come up with that kind of money. And closing the jail would mean that the county would pay other counties even more to keep its prisoners.

The state of Ohio also has its financial troubles. In fact, the state stopped inspecting jail facilities for a four-year period until just last year because of budget cuts.

But a failure by the county to upgrade the jail or look for another option clearly isn't acceptable. And the state, according to its policy, has a role in assuring "safe, secure and humane jails." They are partners in this dilemma.

The situation in Ohio suggests that the state might want to borrow from an approach used in West Virginia. In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Justice found that only one of the Mountain State's 55 antiquated, overcrowded county jails met federal standards. So West Virginia embarked on a plan to construct 10 regional jails that each would serve multiple counties. The state issued bonds to raise the money for construction costs, and the counties pay the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority a daily per-inmate fee to support operations at those jails.

Was everyone happy? No, and counties still grouse today about the money they send to the state authority. But faced with an overwhelming problem, it was the best solution. There was no way each county could afford to build a new jail.

Ohio's jail shortcomings may not be so widespread as what West Virginia faced. Some Ohio counties have built new jails in recent years. But it's hard to imagine that many Ohio counties aren't in the same situation as Lawrence County.

An assessment of whether a regional jail approach might work in some parts of Ohio seems in order, considering neither Lawrence County nor the state of Ohio has yet to come up with another solution for the longstanding problems at the jail in Ironton.

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