Petty criminals -- shoplifters, vandals, the drunk or disorderly -- are getting a slap on the wrist as the county jail nears capacity.
Last week Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell asked the County Commission to build a new jail with 3,500 to 4,000 beds. Luttrell indicated that the jail at 201 Poplar is almost full, and to prevent overcrowding, the county is only holding people for serious crimes.
"There's more scrutiny to determine whether or not a crime can be dealt with as a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony charge," said Luttrell. "If you didn't have the pressures of a crowded situation, you might easily write people up for some felony offense and put them in jail. But these are people who don't really need to be in jail."
As of last Wednesday, the county jail population was 2,360 inmates, and the facility can only house 2,500. If the population rose above 2,500 inmates, Luttrell would have to mix dangerous criminals with minimum-security inmates.
"When you start mixing minimum-security with maximum-security, you're talking about a higher-level, more predatory inmate dealing with a lower-level, less predatory inmate. You'll run into some real risky behavior," said Luttrell.
The sheriff's office is using other tactics to keep jail space available for dangerous criminals. About 200 inmates are being held at a satellite facility at the County Corrections Center at Shelby Farms, but that building has nearly reached capacity as well. About 37 juveniles have been diverted to the women's facility near Shelby Farms. The District Attorney's Office has been weeding out arrest warrants that involve crimes that may not stand the test of prosecution.
"We've got to have some relief," said Luttrell. "At the Operation Safe Community summit in November, we laid out 15 initiatives to aggressively fight crime. That means we're going to be locking more people up, which means we're going to need a new facility."
Not all county commissioners backed Luttrell's plan, however. Commissioner Mike Carpenter suggested Luttrell look into having the Corrections Corporation of America build a satellite facility to hold extra inmates. Luttrell expressed his opposition to privatization but said he'll "discuss it as long as anyone wants to.
"I'm not convinced that privatization will save us that much money without impacting operational efficiency," said Luttrell.
Commissioner Mike Ritz suggested housing more inmates at the Penal Farm.
"The County Correctional Center can't hold too many more," said Luttrell. "They've told us they can't afford to give us any more buildings."
Luttrell said he'll begin requesting proposals from architectural firms in the next couple weeks. He expects to present a final proposal to the County Commission by July or August.