The jail population in Scott County has steadily dropped this year, leaving Sheriff Mike Bladel with something unfamiliar: empty beds on a regular basis.
From March through June, Scott County's average monthly jail population was at or below the 208-person capacity allowed for the main facility (128 inmates) and its minimum-security annex (80). In May, June, and July, the county did not house any inmates out-of-county. (From January through April, the county housed between five and 30 inmates each month in other counties' facilities because its own jail was full.)

The lower jail population can be interpreted in several ways - a sign that alternative programs designed to keep people out of jail are working, evidence of the vagaries of the criminal-justice system, or proof of a decline in crime.

Bladel attributes the trend to all three. The county had projected a jail population of 300 by the end of 2000, but that's clearly not going to happen.

The population "just kind of goes all over the place," Bladel told the Community Jail and Alternatives Advisory Committee on August 9.

But Bladel told the River Cities' Reader that a strong economy and low unemployment have helped decrease the population, while a more aggressive approach to keeping low-risk offenders out of the jail has also improved the overcrowding situation. "The alternative programs are pretty successful," he said.

The most recent addition to the package of alternatives is the court-compliance program, in which probation officers work to ensure people are meeting the terms of their releases.

In the past, judges tried to work with people who were ordered to pay fines or enter drug rehabilitation or batterers' programs, but it was difficult to give each case much time. "The judge would work with them, but it's not unusual to have 100 or more cases," said Arlene Riessen, the county's supervisor of pre-trial release and court compliance.

Often, a judge would give a person four months to pay a fine, and then a four-month extension, which baffled Riessen. "It's kind of pointless to give them another four months" when they hadn't made any payments on the fine, she said. After those eight months, violators were often be sentenced to 120 to 240 days in jail.

Riessen said that as many as 70 people a day would be in the Scott County jail for violations of unsupervised probation. But, since the compliance program was started on April 28, that number has dropped significantly. A few weeks ago, she said, approximately 35 inmates were in the jail for probation violations. In addition, 18 people have fully paid about $9,000 in fines and victim restitution. (The program now covers 301 cases, which would include about 275 people, Riessen said.)

The difference is that officers are regularly checking in on people who were given unsupervised probation, ensuring that they're making payments or attending rehab or fulfilling other requirements of probation. That extra contact appears to be keeping more people out of jail.

Other alternative programs have also shown promise or been expanded. The jail-expediter program, started in 1998 in the Scott County Attorney's office, has proved to be a good way to push cases through the court system and shorten people's pre-trial stays in jail. And opportunities for drug and alcohol treatment at the Center for Alcohol and Drug Services have more than doubled.

But as successful as these alternatives have been, the county jail is still clearly inadequate.

Bladel stressed that the population will likely rise above capacity soon, necessitating shipping inmates to other facilities again. The number of inmates is "being ratcheted up as we speak," he said. "We'll be housing inmates out-of-county."

Another potential problem is that there's no guarantee that beds in other facilities will be available. "We had some difficulty finding beds," Bladel told the Jail and Alternatives Committee. The county has agreements with 13 jails in three states, and "we're looking to expand that," Bladel said.

Shipping out inmates costs money, and this summer's reduction in population has saved the county cash.

In fiscal year 1999-2000, which ended June 30, the county budgeted $400,000 to send inmates to other jails and spent $210,000. In the current fiscal year, the county budgeted $800,000 for out-of-county housing and ? more than 90 days in ? hadn't spent any of it. "It looks very promising," Bladel said. "We might come in substantially lower" than the budgeted amount.

The county was dealt two major blows in over the past two years. In November 1998, a $48-million bond issue to build a 500-bed jail in downtown Davenport and alleviate overcrowding was soundly rejected by voters - "We got our brains kicked in," Bladel said.

In the wake of that defeat, the Jail and Alternatives Advisory Committee was formed, composed of county officials and both proponents and opponents of the proposed jail. Bladel said he expects recommendations from the committee in early 2002. "Most likely it's going to be a combination of everything," likely including a more modest jail project and new or expanded alternative programs. "It's going to be up to them. ... It's going to be a slow, building process."

Compounding the problem of the bond-issue failure, the Department of Corrections ordered a population cap on the Scott County jail in August 1999, turning overcrowding into a legal issue instead of merely a financial, safety, and moral concern.

The population cap limited the maximum number of people the jail can house every day.

"Once a cap is placed on, that's a day-to-day thing," said Mike Richardson, the Iowa Department of Corrections' new chief jail inspector.

Scott County's main jail was over its 128-person capacity twice between August 6 and 9.

But Bladel said the state is not interested in daily violations; instead it's looking for the county to make a "good faith" effort to abide by the population caps. The sheriff said that means ensuring that the monthly average number of inmates housed in Scott County Jail is below the cap.

"That day-to-day population is going to fluctuate," said Richardson, a sheriff for 15 years.

But the state takes the issue very seriously. A cap is placed on a county when overcrowding is an ongoing problem. And failing to abide by a cap can have severe repercussions: The state can close a jail down.

"Either we have a jail in Scott County or we don't," Bladel said. "There's no negotiating with the Department of Corrections."

Facilities that exceed their caps can receive variances from the Department of Corrections, but not if the overcrowding is considered to be unsafe, unhealthy, or unconstitutional; Richardson said overcrowding can be all three.

If no variance is granted and a facility continues to exceed its cap, the Department of Corrections can start closure proceedings.

The work of the Community Jail and Alternatives Advisory Committee is especially important because of that threat. But the apparent success of alternative programs has reduced the urgency of the committee's work. "There is a little more time" to come up with recommendations on dealing with a jail that's too small, Bladel said.

At this point, the committee is primarily working on materials to educate the public about the problem of overcrowding. At the August 9 meeting, members gave updates about various projects, including a two-week sample of the county's jail population (who's in for what and for how long), a glossary of criminal-justice terms, a one-page overview of the criminal-justice system, and a computer presentation explaining various components of the jail-overcrowding issue (including historical statistics on the jail population and the costs of sending prisoners out-of-county). The committee also discussed an application for a three-year, $500,000-a-year grant to expand drug and alcohol treatment for inmates.

The committee next meets Wednesday, September 13, at 4 p.m. at United Neighbors.

Premium Content: