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Officials: More could serve time from home

May 09, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

HAGERSTOWN, Md. - Letting Washington County's nonviolent prisoners hold jobs and serve their sentences at home is not only good for easing them back into society, it's good business, jail officials recently told local judges.

Prisoners who qualify for the Washington County Detention Center's alternative sentencing programs - work release, home detention and weekend incarceration - pay tens of thousands of dollars each year to offset jail costs, according to jail information.

The jail's projected budget next year is $7.1 million, Washington County Finance Director Debra Bastian said.

Last year, the detention center made $124,750 from 297 inmates detained at the jail during the year, according to jail information. That amount included nearly $10,000 for mandatory drug testing.

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"That could be easily doubled if (the programs) ran at full capacity," said Sgt. Terri Blair, who manages jail inmate programs.

Two of the programs have had lower than usual participation rates recently, and historically none of the programs is full, Blair said.

Only judges can assign inmates to the jail alternatives, Blair said.

In late April, Detention Center Warden Lt. M. Van Evans sent letters to Washington County's circuit and district judges requesting that they allow as many inmates as possible to participate in work release and home detention.

Evans said in the letter that the home detention program, since its inception in 1989, has collected $720,000 and has saved $2.8 million in housing fees not spent on the inmates.

More prisoners will be eligible for those programs after a law passed during the last session of the General Assembly takes effect in October, Evans told the judges. That law will expand the program to allow prisoners awaiting trial to participate in home detention or work release.

Circuit Judge John H. McDowell said he has in the past placed some defendants in the programs at sentencing, but said that cannot always be the case.

"Some people actually need the punitive measure of spending time in jail. ... Just because there are spaces out there doesn't mean that's the appropriate sentence," McDowell said. "But it's good it's out there as an option."

Bastian said that with the county's overall operating costs expected to approach $139 million next year, Evans' efforts to bring in more revenue was welcome.

"Yeah, it helps. Every little bit helps," she said.

That and other money, including federal and state payments to house prisoners from outside Washington County, brings in more than $800,000, which offsets the jail's overall costs, Bastian said. Taxpayers support the remaining jail costs, expected to be about $6.3 million next year, she said.

Home detention and work release inmates pay the jail a minimum of $50 per week during the course of their sentences, and up to 20 percent of their weekly earnings, depending on how much they make, Blair said.

The Sheriff's Department can monitor up to 35 inmates on home detention, Blair said, but currently there are only nine in the program. Similarly, there is room for 20 inmates in the work release program, but there are five right now.

She said there is room as well for weekend inmates - short-term prisoners who serve their sentences only on weekends over several weeks. Those inmates pay the jail $10 each day of their jail stays.

There usually are about 10 weekend-only inmates, but there is room for up to 15, Blair said.

Blair said Evans' appeal to the judges appeared to work. On Thursday, the detention center received five new home detention assignments and two work release assignments from circuit and district judges.

Blair said she expected an increase in participation - and revenues - after October, when prisoners awaiting trial can participate in the programs.

"Once we get pre-trial started, I'm hoping that'll really open it up," she said.

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