JEFFERSON — Nearly a half million dollars in grant money is on the way which will help local officials work toward some criminal justice reforms and efficiencies within the system.
The county will receive more than $470,000 in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 through the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (T-CAP) program. The grant is provided through the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
The Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners met with Judges Gary Yost and Marianne Sezon and Kathy Thomspon, grants coordinator, Thursday where they discussed how funds will be used.
The goal is to hire a bond commissioner, who will serve as a direct link between those arrested, courts, connection center, probation departments and mental health services, to aid in efficiency and determining who can quickly be released from jail.
Such a person would communicate with those arrested, perform assessments and provide connections between the municipal and common pleas courts. The person would help keep track of those who already posted bond in a lower-level court so they don’t wind up with an arrest warrant if they are indicted on a felony charge.
The bond commissioner also would aid in keeping those who don’t need to be in jail out, while creating room for those who should be kept off the streets.
A probation administrator would also be hired to manage grant funds and perform certain reporting and accounting tasks. Job descriptions still need to be drawn up for both positions, and it remains to be seen who would oversee the bond commissioner.
After salaries for both of these positions are accounted for, it is expected that nearly $200,000 would remain. Officials discussed the possibility of using the remaining funds to offset salaries of the drug court and mental health coordinator positions, depending on the amount of federal grant dollars that come in this year for both of those positions.
In 2017, there was some controversy regarding T-CAP grants because judges were required to agree to financial penalties if people were sentenced to prison time on fifth degree felonies as opposed to probation.
The penalty clause has now been eliminated, but it is still thought that if county judges don’t put more fourth and fifth degree felony offenders on probation the grant money might not be renewed by the state in the future.
Local officials have said the state’s goal is to make all fifth- and fourth-degree felony offenders the responsibility of county justice systems in order to get them out of state prisons with the end goal of shifting costs to counties.
The community will have to figure out how to bear the cost of dealing with all the people who will ultimately wind up in county jails as opposed to state prisons. This will present challenges for places like Ashtabula County which already have overcrowded jails.
Yost suggested setting aside some of the T-CAP dollars to be used to house offenders in the jails of neighboring counties if the need arises.
"It's my opinion that since part of the trade off here is that we're no longer going to send fifth-degree felonies to prison, we're going to need to pay for jail space," Yost said. "We're going to have to move them somewhere. We're going to have to accept that fact and figure out how we're going to address it."
T-CAP money could be used for such purposes, Thompson said.
Commissioner Kathryn Whittington said the goal of a bond commissioner and probation administrator will be to get people out of jail and make the criminal justice process more efficient. Hiring these new people, and the work they ultimately do, would then make room for more of the fourth- and fifth-degree offenders that the state no longer wants in state prisons, Whittington said.
If the positions are not effective in achieving this goal all parties involved will need to reconsider the plan and approach, Whittington said. The work the new positions will do must be data driven and results of who is coming in and out of the jail must be monitored to see if the approach works, she said.
"We're not going to keep positions when funding dries up if they aren't effective," Whittington said. "The whole purpose to this is to help with the justice system as a whole to be more effective and efficient."
The positions could be filled by this fall. T-CAP money needs to be spent by June 30, 2020 or it will go back to the state.