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COLUMN

Solving prison-rape problem that may not exist could cost Allen County millions

Feds want to protect prisoners, but who will protect taxpayers?

Saturday, July 20, 2013 - 12:01 am

Whether it's border security, “don't ask, don't tell” or the timely implementation of Obamacare, the federal government clearly feels free to ignore its own laws when practicality – or politics – justifies it.

Allen County officials have no such latitude when it comes to complying with laws passed by federal officials whose desire to impose questionable solutions to dubious problems is surpassed only by their refusal to be blamed for the expense.

“Unfortunately, this is yet another unfunded federal mandate that will have a substantial impact,” Allen Superior Judge Dan Heath wrote in a letter to County Council last week to explain why he was requesting another $466,000 in the Juvenile Justice Center's 2014 budget, much of which would have paid for the 15 new employees Heath said may be needed to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Because the act – passed in 2003 by the administration of Republican President George W. Bush! – doesn't take effect until 2017, Council denied the request. But that only delayed the inevitable for the juvenile facility, the Allen County Jail and other detention facilities in which inmates may or may not fear for their virtue.

“I've not found (sex abuse) to be a problem here,” said Heath.

“It doesn't happen often here. It's more in the prisons,” agreed Chief Deputy Sheriff Dave Gladieux, who said federal officials will inspect the Allen County Jail next month to assess its compliance. Sheriff Ken Fries has said unfinished portions of the facility may have to be completed for $2 million and as many as 30 additional officers hired, at an annual cost of nearly $1.6 million.

Neither Heath nor Gladieux disagree with the law's intent, of course. Protecting prisoners from harm is not only the humane thing to do, it is also financially necessary. There is no shortage of lawyers willing to seek taxpayers' money for prisoners' grievances, real or imagined.

But as is often the case, the law appears to use a machete where a scalpel might suffice. As Heath explained, it requires one staff member for every 16 prisoners at night and one supervisor for every eight prisoners during the day. But as Gladieux pointed out, mathematical ratios cannot account for differences in prisoners and, perhaps more important, differences in design. Some jails simply are designed more efficiently than others, allowing smaller staffs to provide the same level of safety. One size doesn't necessarily fit all.

But with a limited budget and (unlike Washington) lacking the ability to print money or assume trillions of dollars of debt, the county will have no choice but to comply. And that could mean drawing funds from other services or boosting efforts to keep as many people out of jail as possible.

Heath, in fact, said he is already working to fine-tune the process used to determine which young people must be incarcerated and which can safely be entrusted to less-severe forms of punishment. That's fine but can only do so much because, as Health noted, “We're seeing a change in the profile (of youthful offenders). They're younger, more violent, with more mental-health issues.”

So while it's important to protect prisoners from each other or guards, it's even more important to protect the public from them. This law isn't intended to do that, and may in fact have the opposite effect if forces the release of prisoners in order to comply with the numerical guidelines.

But that isn't really the point. The point is that this law is just another example of how gutless politicians pass laws but refuse to provide the funds necessary to implement them. In some cases that adds to the deficit; in this and other cases it forces state and local officials to raise taxes or reduce spending else. Either way, the politicians who passed the law get the credit for whatever good the law may accomplish while avoiding blame for having added to taxpayers' already substantial burden.

What we really need is a law that would protect taxpayers from being victimized by such cowards.

Blue Jacket in the pink

Last month I wrote that Blue Jacket Inc., a not-for-profit agency that works to find jobs for recently released offenders, faced an uncertain future unless it could raise about $50,000 by the end of the year. I'm pleased to report that Executive Director Tony Hudson has raised $33,000 to date and things are looking up.

“We'll be around for a great while,” he promised. “What we do is too important!”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.