Sullivan sheriff: 'We're violating Constitutional rights'

J. H. Osborne • May 19, 2019 at 1:45 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy and Mayor Richard Venable have been meeting regularly — perhaps weekly — with District Attorney General Barry Staubus and local judges to seek a solution to ongoing overcrowding at the Sullivan County jail and its secondary “expansion” facility, Cassidy told the Sullivan County Commission last week.

The commission has been debating a request for more funding to pay for additional employees at the jail, a move proponents say would make it safer for both inmates and officers.

Increasing the jail staff could also ultimately save money if it reduces overtime, which Cassidy said has cost at least $71,500 just since Jan. 1.

Commissioner Hunter Locke introduced a resolution last month originally seeking $2 million in new funding for the sheriff to pay for 32 new employees in the long-overcrowded jail. Locke later amended the resolution to seek $1 million for 20 new employees, its co-sponsor changed from Commissioner Michael Cole to Commissioner Angie Stanley, and Venable clarified that the resolution, if approved, wouldn’t actually do anything other than amend the sheriff’s budget request for the upcoming budget year.

With those changes and after much debate and discussion, a bit of which focused on whether commissioners understood what they were voting on, the commission approved the resolution last week. It’s next likely stop for debate will be the Budget Committee, scheduled to meet Wednesday. Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey already has told commissioners there will be no growth in revenue for the year ahead — the value of each penny on the property tax rate has actually dropped — and multiple commissioners said they believe something must be done to help Cassidy with the jail, but they will not consider a tax increase, period.

The Sullivan County jail has been under review by the state for nearly five years due to the constant overcrowding. The two facilities together are certified to house about 622 inmates. The inmate population in recent months has topped 900, and Cassidy said it will hit 1,000 this summer.

“We’re violating constitutional rights,” Cassidy said of the overcrowding and the unsafe conditions it creates. “Cruel and unusual punishment.”

Commissioner Dwight King, among those nixing talk of a tax increase, said he wants to see some action on solving what he called the root problem of overcrowding. King said he’d like to see county officials getting together to get something done.

Venable answered King by saying such meetings “of the appropriate people” already have been taking place.

Several commissioners said the county’s judicial system is broken, and Commissioner Alisha Starnes asked if Staubus and all the judges could be asked to come and explain some things to the commission. Venable said if the commission voted to ask, then such an invitation could be issued. However, the commission did not pursue the suggestion further.

Cassidy said the bottom line is safety and that is his responsibility as sheriff — and he does not have enough resources, specifically employees, to do all the tasks required.

“I know you have a lot of hard decisions,” Cassidy said. “We are conservative. We don’t want a tax increase. But don’t let that become tunnel vision. ... Let’s see the constitutional rights. The rule of law is my job.”

That, Cassidy said, means keeping inmates and officers safe.

“My job isn’t to set bonds or release people or release people on ankle monitors,” Cassidy said. “A sheriff’s job is to house inmates in a safe manner and also (provide for) the safety of the officers. My protection of my employees is my utmost importance. That’s my job as sheriff.”

Cassidy, elected last August, noted that overcrowding and what to do about it are not new topics.

“This has been going on six years,” Cassidy said.

The sheriff also tackled another issue constantly raised by some who think there’s an easy fix: easing enforcement of marijuana laws or releasing inmates in the jail now on marijuana-related charges.

“We don’t house marijuana offenders,” Cassidy said. “Those guys are out already. They make that $500 or $750 bond and for $75 they’re out in 30 minutes.”