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Scott officials spar over rising inmate count at regional jail

Holly Viers • Sep 9, 2019 at 9:00 AM

GATE CITY — A monthly report from interim Scott County Sheriff Chris Holder developed into a lengthy discussion about the Duffield Regional Jail during Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

The county’s inmate count at the jail has risen over the last several months, fueling ongoing concerns from the BOS about rising costs. When questioned about the increase, Holder and Maj. Pete Chambers said the biggest factor is the resurgence of meth in the region, a problem that both said continues to get worse.

Supervisor David Redwine questioned whether arresting more people would “make a dent” in the total number of people using meth, given the widespread nature of the problem.

“Your job is a law enforcement officer, and I expect you to defend it; I expect you to explain why you have to do this and to do the very best job you can,” Redwine told Holder. “Our job is to manage the county financially, and we’re going to do the best we can, and we just cannot afford to keep this (going). This is a house on fire, and it’s going to burn down if we don’t find an answer to the inmate numbers.”

Holder defended his aggressive stance, citing the dangerous behavior of meth users and his oath to keep the county safe.

“If it comes down to the point to where people want us to overlook crime, I don’t need this job and I don’t want this job, because … the sheriff’s office oath is to protect the life and property of the citizens of this county,” Holder said, “and that’s exactly what we intend on doing as long as I’m there.”

Facts and figures

The Duffield Regional Jail has long been a contentious topic for the BOS. The county currently pays $41.13 per day for each inmate with charges only in Scott County; it also pays a portion of the cost for inmates with charges in both Scott and one of the surrounding localities — Lee, Wise and the city of Norton, all of which also house inmates in the Duffield facility.

This fiscal year, the BOS formulated its budget based on the average daily population of county inmates at the jail. To cover that expense and balance the budget, the BOS raised taxes and took money out of its general fund.

But with the inmate count rising well above the expected average, Supervisor Danny Mann said the county could have to pay another $1 million to the jail at the end of the fiscal year, on top of the $3.4 million that was already budgeted.

“We raised taxes a phenomenal amount and it still wasn’t enough,” Mann said. “When you raise taxes and you still can’t balance your budget without taking money out of reserves, there’s something wrong. I don’t know the answer.”

Fighting meth

Holder said meth has far surpassed opioids and other drugs as the most widely abused substance in the county and has led to the increase in arrests. While some is made in the U.S., he said most is coming from Mexico in a clear, crushed crystalline form known as ice.

Chambers said that if meth users aren’t aggressively pursued and arrested, other crimes like theft will increase, and businesses won’t want to invest in the county.

“Very (few) have a job, so what they do is they go out and steal. They steal something, they sell it, they buy meth. It’s a continuous cycle,” Chambers said. “We’ve been interrupting that cycle by aggressively going after these drug dealers … and 90 percent of that is coming from over the border in Tennessee. That is the direct flow.”

At one point, Holder asked the BOS, “What do you expect me to do?”

Supervisor Chad Hood responded by saying, “That’s for you to figure out; you’re the sheriff.”

The political arena

Holder — who is running for sheriff as an independent against three other candidates in this year’s election — said he feared political views were becoming a factor in the jail discussion. He said a message is being spread to the public that the sheriff’s office caused this year’s tax increase by putting more people in jail.

“It’s not our fault that the regional jail is getting full,” Holder said. “It’s people’s fault, and we are not going to stop putting people in jail. We are not going to stop doing our job.”

Redwine said he feels the problem is “anything but political,” adding that he would respond the same way no matter who was sheriff.

“Taxes went up because we have more inmates in the jail than we’ve ever had,” Redwine said. “That was the main reason we had to do what we had to do, and we still took $700,000 out of the general fund, which we didn’t want to do, and we raised everything we could raise, but it cannot keep going. It just cannot keep going; we’re going to be broke.”

At one point during the meeting, Supervisor Marshall Tipton accused Holder of “taking jabs” at Jeff Edds, a Virginia state trooper and Republican candidate for sheriff who was in the audience during Wednesday’s meeting. Holder denied the accusation.

“Jeff Edds, if he wants to be sheriff, that’s fine; I have nothing against Jeff. … Nobody here has took a jab at anybody,” Holder said. “The jab is being taken that the sheriff’s office is causing taxes to go up.”

Calculating inmates

Though neither Holder nor the BOS came up with a solution to the problem, they did identify a next step. Andrew Johnson, commonwealth’s attorney for Scott County, pointed out that it isn’t clear how the jail calculates its average daily inmate population each month, which determines how much the county has to pay.

For example, on Wednesday Holder’s numbers stated there were 255 Scott County inmates in the jail, while Johnson’s numbers stated there were 217; both numbers were provided by the jail, but from different staff members. In addition, a spike in inmate numbers occurred between March and April with no explanation, suggesting a change in calculation method occurred at that time, Johnson said.

In a report obtained by the Times News on Thursday, Scott County was listed as having an average daily jail population of 213.1 inmates, compared to 252.07 from Wise and 149.08 from Lee.

Johnson said the next step should be meeting with jail staff to determine the formula used to calculate its averages.

“Hopefully we can get something scheduled very shortly to talk with the Regional Jail Authority and possibly anybody in the General Assembly that we need to discuss about just how exactly that the … Regional Jail Authority as a whole is making this calculation,” Johnson said, “because it’s very concerning to me when I begin to look at the numbers.”

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