Free as a Bird 

New report urges county to spend more money keeping people out of jail.

Former heroin addict James Long isn't incarcerated now, but he very well could be had he not completed the Shelby County Drug Court program in 2005.

Now a drug court counselor, the former hair salon owner attended the program after being arrested twice for selling Diladid and heroin.

"I've owned two hair salons in Bartlett, but I ended up having a massive heart attack and drawing disability," Long says. "I was on so many drugs that I couldn't keep up with any bills, and I wound up living on the street for about eight years."

After getting arrested a second time, Long was offered the option of attending the 12-month program as an alternative to jail time.

A report commissioned by the Sheriff's Office suggests that the county reduce its jail population by spending $2.3 million to expand its four jail diversion programs: the Shelby County Drug Court, pre-trial services' Day Reporting Center, the Jericho Project, and the district attorney's Jail Screening Unit.

The report by consulting firm Carter Goble Lee also says the county should either renovate 201 Poplar to provide more efficient use of space or build a new jail across the street from the current facility. Depending on which option the Shelby County Commission chooses, the price tag could be as high as $408 million. At a committee meeting last week, most commissioners expressed reservations about spending that much money to build or improve the jail.

"Realistically, what we need to tackle first are funding these diversion programs," Sheriff Mark Luttrell says. "We can start work on that immediately and it will have an immediate impact."

With $2.3 million in funding, the report estimates about 200 people would be diverted from jail custody by next year.

The Shelby County Drug Court allows non-violent drug offenders, such as Long, to be released from jail in exchange for attending daily drug treatment classes and AA meetings for one year. Once an offender completes treatment, their case is dismissed.

Shelby County Pre-Trial Services helps divert jail populations through its jail-release operation.

"We look at arrest histories and the facts on the current arrest to see if misdemeanor defendants can be released on their own recognizance," says Pre-Trial Services deputy administrator Nadolyn Dunigan.

Some people who qualify for release, however, may still require supervision. The Pre-Trial Services' Day Reporting Center functions like "a daycare for criminals," according to Dunigan.

"We have programs like GED training, computer training, and moral recognition therapy," Dunigan says. "We help them get jobs, and we've helped clients get accepted into local colleges."

Currently, the center is staffed with two employees and handles a maximum of 200 clients.

Mentally ill criminals may qualify for jail release through the Jericho Project, a program operated by the Shelby County Public Defender's Office that places the mentally ill into temporary treatment while they await long-term treatment programs. "A person with a mental illness spends from two to eight times as long in jail waiting to get their case taken care of as someone who doesn't have a mental illness," says public defender Steven Bush.

The Jericho Project is now operating skeleton services because federal grant money has tapered off.

Through the Jail Screening Unit, two prosecutors work inside the 201 Poplar facility to screen arrests.

"When police bring in suspects, they review arrest tickets and make adjustments to the charges," says district attorney communications director Jennifer Donnals.

Last year, 243 people were sent back home after prosecutors in the Jail Screening Unit declined to prosecute them. Donnals says the proposed funding would allow the District Attorney's Office to hire more people to staff the unit around the clock.

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