What should taxpayers expect from their jails?

Photo: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

(The Center Square) — While jails take up a significant portion of a county’s budget, the millions of taxpayer dollars they cost aren’t as visible as other government services.

Members of the Georgia Senate Public Safety Subcommittee on Fulton County Jail are probing overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail, which costs taxpayers millions of dollars and creates a dangerous environment. The subcommittee is investigating the “root causes” and possible solutions for fixing the jail.

As subcommittee members prepare to file a report with recommendations that could guide legislative action when lawmakers return to Atlanta next year, it begs the question: What should taxpayers expect from their jails?

“The answer is simple, accountability from all levels of staff, more importantly, the leadership,” Percy Pitzer, founder of Creative Corrections, told The Center Square via email. “It’s my experience, as a retired warden, with 25 years working in prisons, including two major jails in New York City and Miami, Florida, [that] without accountability, you will never attain an efficient operation. Without strict accountability, the people that lose will be the taxpayers, line staff and the inmate population.”

“Budgets which mean the jail living within their means, number of preventable incidents occurring, number of lawsuits against the jail, number of inmate deaths, that could or should have been prevented, lack of staff training and lack of accountability when these situations occur,” Pitzer added.

Eric Chaffee, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said jails have several goals, including rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution.

“Ultimately, there is a cost of keeping people in jail. But there’s a cost of not keeping people safe in that environment,” Chaffee said. “In the event that you do not keep them safe, it leads to a situation where people may have to be incarcerated for longer, leading to additional cost, it leads to a situation in which you have to investigate the types of crimes that occur within the jail.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s much more cost-effective to make sure that you are creating a safe environment for criminals rather than trying to fix things after really bad things happen,” Chaffee said. “Ultimately, somebody ending up in jail for life or having to pay some sort of tort judgment because you didn’t keep people safe while they were incarcerated is very expensive, and it’s better to make sure that you’re creating a safe environment on the front end, rather than trying to pay things out on the back end.”

By T.A. DeFeo | The Center Square contributor

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