Bridging the Gap: Knox County pretrial release program aiding in jail overcrowding

Bridging the Gap

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Jail overcrowding has been a problem in Knox County for years.

An average of 1,220 inmates are packed into the Knox County Detention Facility. That’s about 200 people too many.

However, one program seems to be chipping away at the overcrowding numbers without putting the public in danger: the county’s pretrial release program.

We visited the tiny room in the Knoxville City-County Building where the pretrial process begins. A handful of Sheriff’s Office employees stay
glued to their computer screens, assessing every arrest in real time, to see if the person could be eligible for the program.

“We start seeing reports before they ever even get to the jail, so we start looking at them while they’re in the back of the car,” Knox County Pre-Trial Risk Assessment Coordinator Keith Harris.

In another part of the City-County Building is the constant supervision of people in pretrial release.

Instead of sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial on his latest public intoxication and possession charges, Donald Street comes in for a required meeting with Pre-Trial Release Officer Stoney Gentry.

Street must show up for a meeting once a month, call in once a week, stay out of trouble, and wear an ankle monitor. He’s only allowed to go home, to court, and hopefully, rehab, with officer Gentry tracking his every move.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office gathers the data on each offender who passes its assessment for the pretrial program, then sends the report to the court, with the judge making the decision.

The KCSO says those with a history of sexual offenses and elder abuse, among other crimes, do not qualify for the program.

It’s an often thankless job for Gentry and just a few other officers working in cramped quarters, keeping watch over the growing number of people in the program.

“We need more people,” Gentry said. “Just the sheer number has made supervising them more difficult.”

Street is just one of the 24,000 people arrested in Knox County every year, and among a growing number in the pretrial release program.

Chief Todd Cook, director of pretrial services, said that in January 2019, 485 people were supervised under pretrial services. Today, 1,306 are in the program.

“We have cut the average length of stay for a misdemeanant defendant for pretrial in Knox County from 11 days down to approximately 3 days; so, huge savings,” Cook said.

As for Street, he says he’s trying to get on the right track, hoping to get out of the system and see the grandchildren he’s never met.

“I ain’t seen my grandkids,” Street said. “I got three. I ain’t seen the last two ever.”

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