Two decades ago, DeKalb County's then-Sheriff Pat Jarvis hauled two busloads of inmates to the state Capitol and parked them there. The dramatic move was aimed at getting the state to address a backlog of prisoners in his jail.
Today, the problem continues on an even larger scale, although no recent publicity stunts have called attention to it.
The number of state-sentenced prisoners being housed in county jails across the state jumped from 3,278 in January 2008 to 5,277 a year later, according to a report issued by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. That's a 61 percent increase in a 12-month period. Jails are only supposed to house pretrial detainees.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections said Monday that the department recognizes the importance of managing the jail backlog.
"Although we are currently at approximately 105 percent prison bed utilization, we have plans in place that will work to draw the jail backlog down and provide relief to the counties," said Joan Heath, director of public affairs for the Department of Corrections.
Those plans include triple-bunking inmates at some facilities to maximize space, adding nearly 800 beds in fast-track facilities next year and adding 1,500 private prison beds that will become available next summer.
Cobb County's Sheriff Neil Warren said he's been trying for years to call attention to the state prison backlog, but it has only gotten worse. Over the past four years, the number of state prisoners in his jail has climbed from an average of 200 to about 350.
Not only do state prisoners take up valuable bed space, they cost more money to house than the state is willing to pay. Warren said it costs about $48 a day to house one inmate. The state only reimburses the county for about half that, and then only after 15 days have lapsed.
"I just think the current practices of the DOC in the state of Georgia have unfairly shifted the cost of housing state inmates to local taxpayers," Warren said. "They need to take care of their business."
The backlog also is a security issue, since overcrowded conditions tend to cause more fights. The Cobb County jail was at 123 percent of its capacity last month.
The Gwinnett County jail was packed with 376 state prisoners in October, more than any other county in Georgia. On Monday, that number had fallen to 179. Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said the severity of the problem fluctuates, but the issue has been constant since he took office in 1997.
"I'm on the phone with my jail administrator four or five times a week urging him to call the state and try to get them to pick up folks," Conway said.
Conway estimates that he could be staffing two fewer housing units if he didn't have to hold state prisoners.
The backlog of state prisoners in Cobb prompted officials to use a portion of penny sales tax collections for a $110 million jail expansion sooner than would otherwise have been necessary, according to Warren.
There is little hope that anything will change soon. State Rep. Judy Manning (R-Marietta) equated the problem to running on a treadmill: "you never see the end."
She said the state simply doesn't have the bed space or the money to build more facilities, so it leans heavily on jails to fill the gap. Forcing the state to pick up all of its prisoners when there is insufficient room to house them would probably put the state in violation of federal prison guidelines, Manning said.
"You can't put people in bad situations when there is no room at the inn," Manning said.
Snapshot of state prisoner backlog in county jails:
(County/ total jail population/ state prisoners/ % of total)
Clayton/ 1,894/ 300/ 16
Cobb/ 2,370/ 361/ 15
DeKalb/ 3,429/ 185/ 5
Fulton/ 3,044/ 191/ 6
Gwinnett/ 2,622/ 367/ 14
*Information from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs "County jail inmate population report" as of Oct. 1, 2009.
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