By Timothy Cox
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey is concerned about a recent Ohio Attorney General's Office opinion because the legal recommendations conflict with the way sheriff's office and jail business is done locally.
Specifically, the opinion holds jails to tight restrictions on space and overcrowding issues and seems to take away the sheriff's ability to release people arrested on bond so they do not have to be held in jail until appearing in court.
County commissioners met with Grey this week to discuss the issue. They recommended conducting business as usual until a court order demands otherwise. The county prosecutor's office also is reviewing the Attorney General opinion, they said.
The Attorney General's opinion was issued to answer legal questions posed by the Brown County Sheriff's Office. The answers have surprised county officials statewide.
"Our position is the Attorney General is wrong," Grey told commissioners. "There was lots of buzzing going on at the state sheriff's association meeting." One part of the legal opinion says sheriff's shall provide jail space that meets state regulations. Those rules on the setup of jails had always in the past been looked at as recommendations, not hard-and-fast rules, Grey said.
There is virtually no way the existing Mercer County Jail could meet all state requirements, he said. Based on those regulations, the local jail can house 15 inmates. In reality, there usually are 25 or more inmates locked up there.
Grey already has said he plans to start moving any inmates over 25 to other area jails. If the county is forced to adhere to the limit of 15, the costs to house inmates elsewhere would skyrocket, he said.
"That's impossible in our situation," Grey said of meeting state jail standards.
The same opinion states that inmates cannot be released unless they post adequate bail. The opinion indicates a court appearance would be necessary before any alleged criminal can be released.
"This opinion would fill up our jail every night," Grey said.
The local sheriff's office, like most others, typically release non-violent offenders on cash or own recognizance bonds based on a schedule set by the offense they are charged with. Felony offenders are never released without a court appearance.
If the department had to hold all violators until an initial court appearance, the jail would be more overcrowded than it is now, Grey said.
Although the Attorney General's opinion is troubling, commissioners openly wondered what the risks are of not complying with the legal opinion.
"What are the consequences?" Commissioner Jim Zehringer said.
Grey said direct consequences are uncertain. In a civil lawsuit, failure to comply with the Attorney General's opinion could come back to haunt the county, he said. If county officials were accused of some jail-related issue, the accuser could point to the opinion as evidence the county knowingly committed the violation, he said.
For now, county officials said they would take their chances rather than scrambling to comply with an opinion that has never been decided in court.
County officials are in the preliminary stages of addressing the jail's future. A needs assessment is underway to determine how much jail space the county might need in the future, but county officials have admitted a new jail is not on the short-term horizon.