Grayson could put felons to work

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — With the expansion of the New River Valley Regional Jail, costs per year have escalated more than $700,000 for Grayson County prisoners in the upcoming budget year.

Grayson leaders are looking at ways to cut that amount, and invited Kevin Belcher, assistant county administrator in Giles, to their regular meeting last Thursday to talk about a new possibility.

Belcher was part of a team that developed the state's first Day Report Center to help cut rising costs of sending criminals to jail. Giles County began working on the project last June, and it has been open for nearly two months.

Belcher said Giles was in the same situation Grayson is now. Rising costs were making the yearly gap between revenue and expenditures even wider, and the cost per prisoner, per day, was one of the main causes.

Last summer, Giles was paying $50,000 per month, or about $600,000 a year, in fees for the jail. This past December, Giles had 1,931 inmate days, at $27 per day.

“The rate at the jail isn't the problem,” Belcher said. “The number of persons in the facility from Giles is the reason for the huge cost.”

Because there is no offsetting revenue for the cuts, Belcher said it equated to about 7 cents of real estate taxes.

Typically, criminals tend to get stuck in a never-ending cycle, Belcher said. They commit their first crime, serve their jail time and are released. Later, they break the law again, get arrested again, and serve more jail time.

Belcher showed the Grayson supervisors the cycle and pointed to an area that said “At Risk.”

“If we can get these guys redirected early, it could make a large difference.”

Enter the Day Reporting Center, which is intended to eradicate a portion of the county's regional jail bill by rerouting people that would have been inmates into the program.

Originally, Belcher said Giles' commonwealth's attorney estimated that approximately 25 percent of the county's inmate population was “non-violent, non-sexual offenders and were considered candidates for such a program.”

How does it work?

The process starts when a person commits a crime.

Next, the commonwealth's attorney evaluates whether the person would be a good fit for the program. Once there is a recommendation, it is brought before the court and the defense attorney.

If approved at that point, the person is sent to the Day Reporting Center (DRC) for an assessment. Belcher said after about a four-hour assessment, DRC officials can either accept or reject the potential candidate.

“If we don't think they are a good candidate, we send them right back to the court,” Belcher said. “If we think they are, then they can enter the program.”

From the start, each potential candidate has the right to either accept or reject a spot in the program and instead spend their time in jail.

Once a person is accepted, they begin serving their community. If they have a job, they are required to do 12 hours a week of community service, or 40 hours if they don't work.

“That adds extra incentive for them to have jobs,” Belcher said.

Each of the participants are responsible for getting themselves to a central location daily, and are then taken to their various job sites.

Belcher said participants in Giles do jobs such as cutting the grass, janitorial work at the schools and various jobs in Public Works.

The participants are more or less on probation, but the catch is that if a participant violates that probation and is removed from the program, they must return to the court system and serve their entire sentence.

In other words, if a participant was sentenced to one year of jail but then violates his probation after a few months and is removed from the program, he must still serve the entire year of jail time.

“That's the extra incentive to keep them in the program,” Belcher said.

Participants have to pay $60 a month to take part in the program, and $10 for each drug screen — both random and routine.

Participants also are given the opportunity to receive counseling and further their education, Belcher said. “To be successful, they have to have at least a GED or a skill set. The days of walking outside and getting paid $15 an hour to dig a ditch simply isn't there anymore.”

The DRC offers many other services, such as: one-on-one counseling, intensive substance abuse group therapy, anger management group therapy, substance abuse education, parenting skills, adult life skills, AA/NA, religious counseling (as requested), GED, assessments, drug testing, employment and self-esteem.

Supervisors' Chairman Mike Maynard questioned what kind of offenders were eligible for the program.

Those who are not considered to be a threat to society, Belcher said — people with minor felony charges, such as bad checks and/or minor marijuana charges.

“These are people that are not a threat to society,” he reiterated. “And if these people have never went to jail and they go for the first time, they are going to learn things that you don't want in your community.”

Supervisors' Vice-Chair Larry Bartlett questioned how difficult it was to reprimand someone who did not participate in the program as they promised.

Steve Taylor, case manager for the DRC and a retired state police officer, said “It's very easy. All the participants are on active probation. If there is a problem, we write a letter to the probation officer and they appear back in court.”

Taylor added that it's essential for Grayson — if it should decide to move forward — to have someone who is familiar with the local court system to help run the program.

Those good relationships, he said, are what make the program so successful in Giles.

Belcher added that the program did come with some resistance — mainly from victims who were seeing the people who committed crimes against them kept out of jail.

“It is a jail diversion program,” Belcher said. “And it will raise some hair on people's necks.”

Saving Money

According to Belcher, roughly 25 percent of the county's ongoing inmate population of 60 will be eligible for the program.

At $27 per day, those 15 participants equal a savings of about $144,000 a year.

Belcher said the cost of operating the DRC is projected to be around $70,000, which comes out to a savings of about $75,000 per year — or in Giles, almost a penny on the real estate tax.

As even more of a financial incentive, Belcher said if Grayson uses the participants to perform work throughout the county — work that would cost a considerable amount of money — the supervisors could see even more savings, not to mention the extra revenue that would be brought in from the participant fees.

Maynard asked Belcher what kind of start-up costs Giles County had to get things going.

Belcher said the costs were minimal, estimated at less than $5,000 for things such as a laptop and forms.

At first, Belcher said it looks like it may not be manageable, but in the long run it's easy to see how much it can potentially save.

Saving People

While the initial goal of the program was to save Giles County money, Belcher said he quickly realized it was also an opportunity to help people out.

“The ability to break the cycle and empower someone with the tools to be successful can — and does — change lives,” Belcher said.

Without help, many criminals enter into the cycle and are never able to break free.

According to Belcher, the issue of time management is a recurring theme of DRC participants.

“They don't know how to manage their time, and they get in trouble,” he said. “This program helps keep them busy.”

The best method for reducing the potential of a client to relapse is gainful employment, he continued. The DRC gives people access to the tools they need to return to society as a contributor.

“In order for someone to truly realize the benefits of the program, they must want for it to be successful,” Belcher said. “We cannot make them successful. Personal responsibility must be assumed and maintained by the client.”

Following the presentation, supervisors were quick to ask if Belcher would be willing to help Grayson embark on the project.

Belcher said he would be happy to, and that the first goal is to determine where the county wants the program to go and what goals it wants to obtain.

“From there, we work backwards and create a program that works for you and your county,” he said.