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Officials tackle jail crowding concerns

A local retailer is doing a better job ofcatching shoplifters, but the county jail doesn’t always have roomfor them, according to local law enforcement.

    Brookhaven police made a number of shoplifting arrests over NewYear’s weekend, continuing a trend of increased levels ofshoplifting since before the holiday shopping season began, saidChief Pap Henderson. City officials are taking note.

    At the Dec. 20 city board meeting, Henderson described the recentuptick in shoplifting arrests as an “epidemic” after beingquestioned about jail costs by Ward Four Alderman Shirley Estes.The chief attributes the apparent increase to new anti-shopliftingmeasures by Wal-Mart.

    “I would say about five months ago it really picked up,” Hendersonsaid in an interview about the matter this week. “That was whenWal-Mart began new efforts to catch shoplifters.”

    According to Henderson, most shoplifting his department deals withoccurs at Wal-Mart. Further, he said shoplifting tends to be ayear-round problem at Wal-Mart, with other local stores only havinga problem with it during holiday shopping times.

    Henderson said based on the arrests that have been made, Wal-Mart’sefforts have been very effective.

    “Wal-Mart is doing an outstanding job with the way they pick upshoplifters,” Henderson said.

    However, an increase in shoplifting arrests has led to somechallenges for other law enforcement officials. Many of thosearrested for shoplifting have been female, said Henderson andLincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing.

    The Lincoln County Jail can house a total of 125 total inmates, butonly eight females.

    “I usually only keep four or five females at once,” Rushing said.”Females usually rotate out pretty quickly. We’re more designed tohandle males.”

    Brookhaven Municipal Court Judge Raymond Boutwell has sentencedmany of those convicted of shoplifting to serve their time onweekends.

    “We had five to six come in at once one weekend,” Rushing said.”But we may go a month with no one serving weekends.”

    Weekend sentences tend to be very flexible, according to Rushing.Someone may be given the option of serving 10 days straight or 10days over weekends.

    Rushing said people serving weekend time usually serve from Fridayat 6 p.m. until Sunday at 6 p.m. But some only serve 24 hoursrather than 48, depending on their court order.

    The sheriff said he has made Boutwell aware of the problem and thejudge has made adjustments to his sentencing to alleviate crowdingissues at the jail.

    The issue has prompted some aldermen to discuss the idea ofallowing some city prisoners to work off their fines.

    Ward One Alderman Dorsey Cameron in particular has taken up theidea. He points out that if someone owes a fine to the city overwrongdoing but cannot or does not pay, the city has no option rightnow but to send them to jail.

    “It’s the people who come through the court and aren’t paying theirfines, whether for shoplifting or disturbance. If we choose to lockthem up that’s costing the city,” Cameron said. “We need to stopgiving a free pass and just let someone sit in and jail and thetaxpayers pay for it.”

    The city pays the county jail $20 per prisoner per day for the costof holding an individual. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the citypaid approximately $35,000 to house prisoners in the countyjail.

    City Attorney Joe Fernald urges caution regarding a workprogram.

    “Once they come to work for the city, you are responsible forthem,” Fernald said in an interview about the issue.

    Fernald said the city has experimented with the idea before. Someowing fines were working for the city during the beginning of BobMassengill’s tenure as mayor.

    Problems came up, Fernald said. Some came to work drunk and otherssimply would not do assigned tasks.

    “A lot of department heads did not want that kind of labor,”Fernald said. “You have no leverage over them.”

    A commitment to strong supervision could alleviate the potentiallypoor quality of the labor, said the city attorney. However,injuries remain a strong point of objection.

    “All it takes is one or two prisoners to get maimed or hurt on ourtime,” Fernald said. “From an insurance perspective, I don’t knowif that can be managed.”

      Cameron believes the city hasoptions.

    “We’ve got several things they can do that won’t be harmful orhazardous or put the city in any liability,” Cameron aid.

    Cameron suggested that work crews could repaint fire hydrants andstorm drain caution markers.

    “Who can get hurt using a paint brush?” Cameron said.

    Cameron said he wishes the board would make a decision on the issuerather than simply talk about the issue periodically.

    “Every time it comes up we don’t ever go any further with it,”Cameron said. “I’m ready for us to do something about it.”