Sullivan sheriff, judge, make case for new pretrial release program

J. H. Osborne • Nov 8, 2019 at 11:41 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — A week after a $3 million federal lawsuit was filed by a former inmate in Sullivan County’s long-overcrowded jail, Sheriff Jeff Cassidy has a plan to start a “pretrial release” program for inmates meeting certain criteria.

Cassidy, speaking to the Sullivan County Commission — and joined at the podium by Jail Administrator Lee Carswell — said he has a list of 91 inmates he believes suitable for the program immediately.

But to operate the program, Cassidy said, he’ll need to hire at least five new deputies, who would need to be trained to conduct such a program. County commissioners said that would cost about $500,000 a year. Cassidy said it would still save money, compared to keeping those 91 people in jail at a cost of $35 per day.

Cassidy also announced the sheriff’s office had reduced the jail population by more than 40 inmates earlier this week. Those inmates were sent to other county jails in the state that were willing to take them.

As for the pretrial release program, the sheriff doesn’t have the authority to release inmates. That has to be OK’d by a judge.

Several of the county’s judges, along with District Attorney General Barry Staubus, attended and spoke during a special called meeting of the Sullivan County Commission. The sole purpose of the meeting was to seek input and answers from the county’s judicial and law enforcement officials.The resolution requesting the meeting was sponsored by Commissioner Alicia Starnes. It asked those officials to develop and present to the county commission plans to reduce the inmate population in the short term.

Cassidy also presented commissioners with pricing for temporary modular jail units that could be placed on jail grounds, but he pointed out they are not cheap options — costing $1 million to buy, or more than $200,000 to lease for about a year and a half.

Judge James Goodwin spoke in favor of the pretrial release program, but he said Cassidy was being conservative with his estimates, in his opinion. Goodwin said he thinks up to 300 inmates could qualify for such a program — and to handle that level Cassidy would need 10 to 15 new deputies.

Cassidy said the program has been very successful for other Tennessee counties, including Knox County.

Cassidy said he, County Attorney Dan Street and others had recently visited Knox County to learn firsthand about the program. He said Knox County has more than 1,000 participants in the pretrial release program. Those who agree to participate are monitored, through personal visits, by deputies assigned that job. Participants know they must submit to drug tests and have given permission for searches at any time.

Carswell said that as of Thursday afternoon Sullivan County was housing 960 inmates. That’s more than 300 over its certified capacity. Carswell said 506 were being held, pretrial, on felony changes, and 137 were being held, pretrial, on misdemeanor charges.