Davidson County sheriff wants to rent 500 open jail beds to surrounding counties

Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm

Years ago, Metro criminal justice leaders decided — based on projections — that it would be prudent to build more jail space to accommodate what they believed was a rising need for jail beds. In America, betting on an increased need for jail cells has been a lock for decades. 

But Davidson County is currently in a rare position. The number of jail inmates dropped over the past couple years, leaving Metro jails with room to spare. Vacancies spread over its other five detention facilities leaves Davidson County with an average surplus of about 500 jail beds on any given day. So Sheriff Daron Hall, charged with overseeing the jails, is trying to make some money on them. 

Opening next month in Antioch is a 256-bed expansion of a private facility — owned by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America — built with state money for state felons doing prison time. That facility was at capacity and needed expansion, Hall said. According to his office, based on those earlier projections, about 1,000 beds have been added in recent years. 

But now, the other five Davidson County facilities, which house offenders with misdemeanor sentences, have some 500 vacancies.

In a recent inmate consolidation, the sheriff’s office moved about 60 prisoners from the now-empty 300-bed Offender Re-Entry Center at the southeast Davidson County complex to the Correctional Development Center, now nearly full, at the same site. Another 200 or so empty beds are spread throughout the remaining four facilities.

Hall said if the county has the space, why not rent it out to other jurisdictions that might need it. And that could funnel money back into Metro’s general fund, he said.

It’s been standard procedure for more than 30 years for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office to provide empty jail beds to the U.S. Marshals Service, something that’s necessary with the federal box — aka the Estes Kefauver Federal Building & Courthouse — at Ninth Avenue and Broadway, where prisoners must be transported for trial. Hall’s office also made empty Davidson County beds available to Robertson County during a bed shortage in that county, housing an average of 16 female inmates a day over that span.

Now, at least for a limited time, the DCSO has an open-door policy for the U.S. Marshals and any area jurisdictions with inmate housing needs. Davidson County’s going rate for shacking up an inmate is $65 per inmate, per day. That rate is the result of a formula provided by the federal government, which
jurisdictions use to calculate their costs of housing inmates to justify it with the feds. 

“What we’re really getting is reimbursed for the cost of doing it,” Hall said. “It’s not a profit at all [for the sheriff’s office], and it’s not an arbitrary number.”

Using that formula, the DCSO billed Robertson County a total of $419,110.50 from July 2008 to July 2009, and in fiscal year 2010 Davidson County revenue from cells provided to the U.S. Marshals was $1.4 million. And from April 2007 — shortly after the DCSO entered into a 287(g) agreement with the federal government — through February, Hall’s office has billed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement $2.3 million at a rate of about $65 per inmate, per day.

With vacancies in the male inmate population steady for more than a year, long enough to figure in seasonal fluctuations, Hall said, “We’re in a good position, I think, to talk to anyone that has that need. As long as we can work out the details, I think [Davidson County] is in good position to be able to help and to do something good for this county.”

The sheriff’s offer stands, of course, as long as there are empty beds here in the county, and DCSO inmates wouldn’t be released early to accommodate outside inmates. 

“But while they’re vacant,” Hall said, “to me it makes sense for us to be out finding some opportunity to use those because we spent the capital to build them, and the operational costs are minimized when you can have them full.” 

What’s more, the contract with an outside jurisdiction must stipulate that an imported inmate can’t be released in Davidson County but must be shipped back to the county (or jurisdiction) of origin for release.

Hall said a lower number of arrests and no increase in length-of-stay time have helped at least temporarily buck the projections of increased criminal populations. 

“There’s no way we can avoid talking about the removal of some 8,500 people through 287(g),” Hall said, adding it’s “somewhat difficult” to figure out exactly how the program has affected the jail population, “but there’s no way, when you’ve taken that many people out of the criminal justice system that have been arrested multiple times, that it hasn’t had a positive effect in the reduction of arrest numbers.” 

Of that group, Hall said, less than 2 percent have been rearrested.

Two indicators of trends in the jail population — on a very basic level — are intake numbers and length of inmate stay. But as Metro’s Criminal Justice Planning Director Donna Blackbourne Jones warns, those are big categories with many factors combining to drive the numbers.

“The system is so big, I don’t think there’s ever going to be one answer to that,” she said regarding the causes of jail population changes.

Jones said planners consider how many people are going into jail, or the intake numbers, the majority of which are arrests. Currently, that number is tracking an unusual nationwide trend of lower arrests rates. 

Inmates’ length of stay consists of many categories of inmates — pretrial misdemeanants, pretrial felons, locally sentenced felons, and so forth — with varying sentences. 

Veteran criminal defense attorney David Raybin said other factors for the short-term drop in the Davidson County jail population could be better discretion from the district attorney’s office and the courts on who gets jail time versus who goes to alternative programs, such as drug court. 

Also, as the laws change and some sentences increase from misdemeanors to felonies, drawing longer stays behind bars, reoffender arrests may drop. 

But, as Raybin said, the trend of the criminal population parrallels the general population — onward and upward. Therefore, whatever empty jail beds the county has now will be there when they’re inevitably needed. 

In the meantime, Hall hopes the county can turn a few unexpected bucks.