The city of Tupelo is taking steps to reduce both its incarceration expenses and the number of misdemeanor offenders it jails.
With no new jail on the horizon, Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson has made it clear he plans to reverse the historic overcrowding of the Lee County jail, even if it means turning away the prisoners of local municipalities when necessary.
In response, the city of Tupelo is cautiously exploring ways it can avoid hauling some non-violent misdemeanor offenders off to the county lock-ups.
In the month of August, Tupelo police officers issued 76 post-arrest release summons, usually called a PAR, according to Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre.
Such a summons functions much the same way as a traffic ticket. After making an arrest for certain misdemeanor offenses, an officer issues a notice to appear and releases the individual without a trip to jail and the subsequent need to post bail.
A PAR is in essence an instant recognizance bond. A “recog” bond, as it is often called, allows a prisoner to gain release by promising to appear in court and does not require the deposit of any money or property as security.
“We have always used PARs, but not as extensively as we are now,” Police Chief Bart Aguirre recently said.
Mayor Jason Shelton emphasized in a talk earlier this month that, locally, the criminal justice system must increasingly contend with fiscal realities.
“Some people need to go to jail. We’ve got to make sure bad people are arrested,” Shelton said. “But you don’t need to sit in jail for a week on a misdemeanor. We’ve got look at economic realities.”
The county’s work center remains an option for some prisoners as an alternative to the adult jail, but only some prisoners qualify for the work center. Females, for example, are ineligible because of work space constraints and the center has a maximum capacity of about 55 beds.
Shelton’s administration is also working with the city’s municipal court to begin holding arraignments and, if necessary, preliminary hearings. For felony defendants, this process can more quickly change an individual’s classification as a municipal prisoner and push a defendant over to the county’s side of the ledger.
Tupelo could thus trim its jail bills by moving its prisoners through the legal system faster. However, this won’t help the overcrowding problem.
“I think if we manage it properly we can cut our jail bill in half,” said Tupelo’s city attorney Ben Logan. “Of course there will be additional costs in city court for paying judges and maybe an extra clerk.”
Bail is typically set during an arraignment, also called a first appearance. This arraignment must occur within 48 hours of an arrest, according to Mississippi’s current rules of criminal procedures.
Once bail is set, an accused felon has a right to request a preliminary hearing but may also waive this right. During a preliminary hearing, a judge determines whether there is probable cause to proceed.
If a judge so determines, a prisoner is bound over to the grand jury, in the lingo of the criminal justice system. At that point, a defendant is no longer considered a municipal prisoner since the district attorney must present the case to the grand jury.
If a prisoner can’t make bail, however, and neither requests nor waives a preliminary hearing, municipal classification remains in place until an indictment comes. Depending on the timing of an individual’s arrest, this could be some time. Grand juries typically only meet four times a year in Lee County.
Lee County currently charges $25 per head per day to house municipal prisoners and has discussed raising these rates to as much as $50.
Under current practices, arraignments and preliminary hearings, if requested, occur through the county’s Justice Court system.
“Justice Court does a good job, but they don’t have skin in the game,” Logan said. “Once they set that bond, it’s very rare that someone requests a preliminary hearing or waives it. By doing it ourselves, we’ll be able to monitor that much more closely.”
Logan said he is in talks with the city’s municipal judges and the court staff to determine what additional resources may be needed to conduct increased criminal hearings.
Even as it tends to its own business, Shelton’s administration has also sought to foster communication among Lee County’s cities and towns.
Tupelo leaders recently hosted an informal meeting involving police chiefs and elected officials from local municipalities.
“This is a time for us to come together,” Aguirre said, emphasizing that the entire county faces the fallout from tight budgets and an ailing jail.
Tupelo’s mayor likewise emphasized the need for cooperative action while also underscoring that a new jail must remain part of a longterm solution.
“We either need major renovations or a new facility,” Shelton said of a new jail. “I don’t think there’s any real question about that. I certainly support a new jail that we can afford.”
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