Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera said the jail at the Highland County Justice Center has been making improvements since he took office in 2014, and he hopes such strides continue. But with the possibility of a new law dictating most fifth-degree felony offenders must serve sentences in local jails rather than state prisons, the future of incarceration in the county is uncertain.
In a presentation to the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition on Thursday, the sheriff touted jail upgrades – mainly money-saving measures and overall improvement of inmates’ quality of life – and spoke on overcrowding concerns brought on by HB 49, the 3,500-page budget bill that includes an amendment to the Ohio Revised Code stating all fifth-degree felony offenders, with the exception of violent or sex offenders, are no longer eligible for prison sentences, but must instead be incarcerated in local jails.
Hillsboro Municipal Court Judge David McKenna, who was also in attendance at the meeting, said the bill is headed for passage next week.
During his presentation, Barrera said he made it a priority to upgrade the jail when he took office.
“We’re making strides in the right direction,” he said, “and I think we’ll keep doing that.”
Barrera said updating the jail’s commissary, beds, inmate meals and uniforms has improved the quality of life for prisoners and allowed the jail itself more financial stability than in previous years.
The jail, which opened in July 2000 when the Highland County Justice Center was finished, was designed to hold 72 inmates – an improvement from the old county jail, which only held 32 – and was originally intended to house prisoners from other counties for a fee.
However, the sheriff said, with dramatic increases in drug-related crime, the jail instead filled up with Highland County inmates.
According to Barrera, there was a period last summer when the jail held 94 inmates for several days.
“At that point, it’s not safe for the corrections officers, and it’s not safe for the inmates,” he said.
Barrera said he has been told there were 25 fifth-degree felony offenders last year who were sent to prison. If HB 49 passes with the amendment intact, Barrera said, the county will be forced to house some fifth-degree felony prisoners elsewhere, which is expected to be quite expensive.
“All the facilities could get hit hard,” Barrera said.
McKenna said the law is “all about the prisons saving money” at the expense of counties, and the only solution to jail overcrowding will be separate detox centers and inpatient facilities for drug offenders.
The judge said jail “”isn’t a cure for drugs,” although sometimes it’s necessary to protect the public or the prisoner for a time.
“The addicts don’t get cured in the jail,” McKenna said. “They just throw up on the floor and Donnie’s people clean it up.”
McKenna said a 12-bed facility set to open in Greenfield soon and FRS Counseling’s 16-bed facility put the county on the right track.
“We’re at high tide right now,” he said. “We’re outnumbered, 10, 20, 30 to one with the addicts here.”
McKenna said there either need to be more treatment facilities or “bigger graveyards.”
The Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition is a group of public health officials, treatment professionals, law enforcement and people of faith who meet monthly to exchange ideas and resources for preventing local drug abuse.
The group meets at the North High Business Center the fourth Thursday of every month at noon.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.