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Sullivan County releasing, furloughing inmates

J. H. Osborne • Mar 21, 2020 at 10:22 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — On Tuesday, Sullivan County’s jail facilities housed 825 inmates. By Friday afternoon, that number was down to 743, despite new intakes in the days since. That’s a decrease of more than 80 inmates.

Where’d they go?

Home.

How’d that happen?

“The majority of those released from our jail are pretrial release inmates,” Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Andy Seabolt said.

“There have been some inmates that have been released on a medical furlough by judges.The medical furloughs have been to address those inmates that might be extremely susceptible if they contract the coronavirus. A furlough requires the inmate to return to jail when the particular medical event is completed. In this case, it would require the inmate to return to jail upon the coronavirus running its course.”

In December, the Sullivan County Commission approved Sheriff Jeff Cassidy’s request for funding to hire 10 new deputies in order to launch a “pretrial release” program. The goal: move nonviolent inmates who haven’t yet been to trial from the overcrowded county jail to their homes. The new officers will be trained and dedicated to monitoring inmates granted approval for participation in the program.

The cost: $817,000 to get the program up and running for the rest of this budget year (that money will come from the county’s fund balance); and an estimated $564,800 per year in recurring costs beginning July 1, 2020. However, the cost could be offset if it reduces the county’s potential liability for longtime, ongoing overcrowding in its two jail facilities.

In December, Cassidy told county commissioners he had a list of 91 inmates he believed to be suitable for the program immediately, and noted housing inmates costs $35 per inmate per day. But one judge at the meeting said that was a conservative estimate and said as many as 300 inmates might be eligible. The sheriff doesn’t have the authority to release inmates, even into a pretrial program. That has to be approved by a judge.

How it works

“We have had personnel working in the pretrial program all along and have become fully staffed recently,” Seabolt told the Times News on Friday. “Officers assigned to the pretrial program have been reviewing inmate charges and files to see which nonviolent inmates qualify for the program. When an inmate qualifies based upon his or her criminal history and current charges fitting the criteria, the officers prepare the file for the corresponding judge. Files are then taken to the judge for approval or denial. If approved, the nonviolent inmates are released pending their court date. There are different levels of supervision with the pretrial program as well. Some are simply required to call in and speak with a pretrial officer and the level of supervision goes on up to requiring those released to wear a GPS ankle monitor and report to the Sullivan County Jail in person each week.”

Challenges of COVID-19

“The excessive overcrowding of the Sullivan County Jail has made it difficult to segregate inmates that need to be segregated,” Seabolt said. “With the current coronavirus outbreak, the ability to segregate someone that could potentially have the virus is extremely important. We take the health and safety of our staff as well as inmates seriously, and we are taking the steps necessary to maintain that.”

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