New proposed state legislation could potentially help solve one of Jackson County’s most serious problems facing local governments -- the lack of local jail space.

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, 93rd District State Representative Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) and 94th District State Representative Jay Edwards conducted a press conference at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus to introduce and discuss House Bill 101, proposed legislation that would establish a County Jail Construction Funding Formula.

Stephens’ 93rd House District includes all of Jackson and Gallia counties, a large portion of Lawrence County and part of Vinton County. Edwards’ 94th House District consists of Meigs County, as well as portions of Athens, Vinton, and Washington counties. The lack of local jail space is a major problem shared by many Southeastern Ohio counties, which is perpetuated by the lack of money to do something about it.

The two state legislators were joined by five local sheriffs at the press conference, including Jackson County Sheriff Tedd Frazier. Other sheriffs in attendance were Hardin County Sheriff Keith Everhart, Hancock County Sheriff Mike Heldman, Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless, Gallia County Sheriff Matt Champlin, and Meigs County Sheriff Keith Wood. They were presenting a united front to the public to champion a funding plan that mirrors the state’s successful method to fund the construction of new school buildings.

Sheriff Frazier was present to lend his support to the legislative proposal as well as to emphasize the critical need for some type of solution to the jail-space crisis.

The 40-bed Jackson County Correctional Facility is perpetually full and many local offenders sentenced to jail time must be transported to other jails outside Jackson County, oftentimes many miles away. The sore lack of jail space affects not only the county, but also the municipalities in the county. Local law enforcement agencies are routinely forced to transport prisoners to out-of-county jails, including some that are several hours away. Consequently, local officers are spending many hours on the road, driving up costs not only for the jail space, but also for manpower time and transportation costs. Contributing to an already serious overflow is the fact that JCCF was built to serve only male inmates.

“Our current jail is full and has been since it opened in 2000,” Sheriff Frazier commented. “We only house males in the county. Our female inmates have to be housed in other counties across Ohio, which is burdensome to our budget, both in housing and travel expense. When you add the increasing female offender incarcerations and the costs associated with that, we drastically need State help to address the issues of inmate housing. Our allotted budget cannot sustain our growing expenses. This funding would assist us in dealing with our overcrowding and the housing of inmates, both males and females.”

Frazier also noted that the county has been further pinched financially by the fact that local municipalities are citing offenders under state criminal codes, which makes the county responsible for their incarceration costs.

"Dwindling budgets in the municipalities have caused a hardship on the County's responsibility for inmates," Sheriff Frazier explained. “Most municipalities are now charging criminals under State codes, which forces the County to assume responsibility for the housing of the inmate, even if the Sheriff's Office did not directly charge the criminal. So instead of the costs being shared with municipalities, the whole incarceration responsibility now rests on the Sheriff's Office. That includes medical, transportation and housing costs."

Under House Bill 101, the County Jail Construction Funding Formula would be structured similarly to that of Ohio’s school construction formula, which has been in place for over two decades and has proven to be very successful in assisting school districts with major construction projects.

The proposal would allow the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission (OFCC) to work in conjunction with the Ohio Department Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) to develop the funding formula based on the following factors:

* Rank counties and award them funds based on need, such as income per capita, property value and sales tax revenue capacity.

* Develop a matching program where the state will match a certain percentage of construction of a county jail based on the same factors used in ranking. Similarly to the school construction formula, state dollars would only be used for construction costs.

* OFCC and ORDC would work directly with the respective county to establish the best possible solution for a new jail using projections of use and other means of establishing the size of a jail.

* The program would be funded through the state capital budget on the biennium. The last capital budget allocated $50 million for jail construction.

Stephens feels that since this type of funding plan has worked for the construction of new schools in Ohio, it can also work for the construction of new jails.

“A key factor in this legislation is that we are modeling the County Jail Funding Formula off of the state’s school construction formula, which has proven to be successful year after year,” said Stephens. “If we can get a similar formula in place for Ohio’s jails, we could guarantee a safe and efficient jail situation in every single county across Ohio, regardless of population.”

Meigs County Sheriff Keith Wood spoke on behalf of his experience and vocalized his support for the funding bill. Earlier this year, he saw the Meigs County Jail have to close permanently.

“House Bill 101 will remove the financial burden of housing our county’s inmates in and out of county facilities as far as three-plus hours away. Being able to house them in our own county will prevent the wear and tear on our vehicles and allow our officers to remain in our county to protect and serve our citizens,” Wood said.

The prospect of Jackson County perhaps benefiting from House Bill 101 raises questions as to how this option will affect a longstanding initiative to establish a Community Alternative Sentencing Center (CASC) in the county. Could the CASC be funded under proposed legislation? Has potential state funding for a local CASC been lost if House Bill 101 is approved?

An ad hoc group of local officials in Jackson County, led by Jackson County Municipal Court Judge Mark Musick, has sought state-government support for a CASC, which would house and treat drug-related probationers, which would reduce the demand for regular jail space. Local officials felt positively about securing state financial assistance for this project heading into 2020 and had received what they felt was a very favorable feedback from Governor Mike DeWine. However, Judge Musick has since concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in funding possibly being either pulled or at least delayed.

“We were ready to go. The governor (Mike DeWine) thinks this is a highly feasible idea – and I think he still does,” Judge Musick told The Telegram following the House Bill 101 press conference. “We’re going to find out how it [House Bill 101] relates to what we want to do,” the judge concluded. “Right now, I’ don’t know about the relationship of one to the other.”