Overcrowded courts and jails stressing Hamblen Co. system

Overcrowded courts and jails stressing Hamblen Co. system

People heading to court could wait for hours before their cases are heard. People heading to court could wait for hours before their cases are heard.

September 20, 2006

6 News Reporter

MORRISTOWN (WATE) -- Crowded courtrooms and an overcrowded jail are becoming big problems in Hamblen County.

People heading to court could wait for hours before their cases are heard. Judges and court staff are often working long hours, well past the 5:00 p.m. closing time.

On a typical day, judges in Hamblen County will listen to 200-300 cases.

Court officials say the system has been stretched to its limit.

The big problem? There is only one General Sessions courtroom and one full time General Sessions court judge.

6 News checked with several other counties comparable to Hamblen County. All had two courtrooms and two full time General Sessions court judges.

Kathy Mullins, the Circuit Court clerk at the Hamblen County courthouse for the last 17 years, says lack of space is a big problem.

"A lot of days judges are hearing cases in chambers and across the hall in the grand jury room and just wherever we can put them."

Most of the cases overloading the dockets are misdemeanors such as bad checks, drugs and bad driving.

Judge Joyce Ward says when the state law changed to making many traffic violations a criminal charge, the caseload just ballooned.

"Any type of traffic offense, running a red light, running a stop sign, they are criminal court cases subject to a 30 day jail sentence," Ward explains.

Hamblen County commissioners are aware of the problem. They had to cut Mullins' budget this year, but have promised to find funding if she runs out of money.

Mullins says they have received the green light to hire a part time judge, but that's a temporary fix. She says they need more courtrooms and at least one more full time Criminal Court judge.

Busier courtrooms also mean more people heading to jail. In fact, Hamblen County's new Sheriff Esco Jarnagin worries he may be breaking the law.

Authorities tell 6 News their jail was de-certified about one year ago. The county could face a big fine in addition to losing all their state inmates if overcrowding problems are not addressed soon.

The jail, built to house 187 inmates, is usually 50-60 inmates over capacity. In the small space they have available, Sheriff Jarnagin says his inmates are packed in like sardines.

Many are sleeping on mats on the floor. Jarnagin says this is causing tense and angry inmates, and putting his staff at risk.

One inmate who spoke to 6 News on condition of anonymity is accused of drug possession. He's been sleeping on the floor for the last three-and-a-half months.

"You turn into an animal," he says. "You're in a cage with a lot of people, especially strangers. It makes things hard. There is a lot of tension and a lot of animosity from the environment. We definitely need space."

The building is also not up to code. It is located underground. Most of the cells do not have windows so inmates do not have exposure to any sunlight. A walk through the facility reveals dark and dingy conditions.

Sheriff Jarnagin says they cannot continue to operate like that. "The federal government will move in and mandate the county commission builds a new jail."

The sheriff hopes elected leaders and taxpayers understand the urgent need for a new facility. Otherwise, taxpayers will foot the bill for fines.

"I don't want to spend money any more than the next person. I do not want to see taxes being raised. But we have a problem we have to address, and that is housing people that violate the law," the sheriff says.

Jarnagin says the County needs a jail that will house 300-500 inmates. He feels the old facility can be used to house misdemeanor inmates.

The sheriff says he hopes taxpayers understand, delaying the building of a new facility could mean it'll cost them twice as much. The cost to build could double if they wait three to five years.


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