County, city still in talks about transferring ownership of downtown jail

Downtown Jackson jail.
Downtown Jackson jail.(WLBT)
Published: Jun. 22, 2022 at 6:19 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Local leaders say they’re still in talks about transferring ownership of the downtown jail to the city of Jackson.

Tuesday, City Attorney Catoria Martin provided an update to the city council regarding the transfer, which would give the city the ability to open a misdemeanor holding facility.

“There are some things we are still working out. But we are consistently meeting to get to the goal of (the building) exchanging hands,” she said.

Hinds County and city officials have been in discussions for months.

Among ongoing concerns, parties are still working out who will be responsible for making repairs at the site, and what sections of the building will still be used by the county once the transfer takes place.

“We are going to take ownership of the building,” Martin said. “They have passed a resolution saying they will release ownership to us. The problem is, they still need to occupy the basement of the building.”

The jail is located on S. President Street behind the Hinds County Courthouse. In addition to a 183-bed jail, it also houses the sheriff’s department administrative offices, a kitchen, and a washroom for doing laundry.

The city wants the building, in part, to open a misdemeanor holding facility. Through June 2, the Jackson Police Department made 1,382 misdemeanor arrests. However, the majority of those individuals had to be field-released because the city has nowhere to house them.

Currently, the department can’t transport most misdemeanor offenders to the Hinds County Detention Center due to the jail’s consent decree mandates.

Police argue that those offenders often graduate to more serious crimes, contributing to the rise in many violent crimes in the capital city.

The new facility would allow the city to house misdemeanor offenders for at least 48 hours for a “cooling off” period.

“We’ve got to send a message. ‘Hey, if nothing else, we’re going to disrupt your weekend,’” Ward 5 Councilman Vernon Hartley said.

Among other concerns, the county and city are still working out who would make repairs to the facility.

Deputy Chief Vincent Grizzell told the council that renovations to the facility would cost around $825,000, according to an initial ballpark quote from Benchmark, a contractor that does a good bit of jail work for the county. That amount would cover the cost of installing a new hot water tank, a new air conditioning motor in the east wing, and other repairs.

Martin said the city doesn’t have the funds to make the repairs, nor does it have the money to operate the facility if and when it opens. “We’re not sure how much that would cost. We’re trying to determine that now,” she said.

Where the funding would come from also remains to be seen. The money could come from the JPD budget, which has operated at a budget surplus in recent years.

According to city of Jackson audits, JPD spent just $23.5 million of its $30.2 million personnel services budget in fiscal year 2020, leaving a surplus of approximately $6.4 million. The year prior to that, JPD underspent its personnel budget by approximately $859,499.

Through May 31 of the current fiscal year, JPD had gone through just 49 percent of its $29.2 million budget, giving the department a nearly $5.2 million surplus through the first eight months of the year.

JPD officials say some of the surplus funds should be used to raise officer pay to $50,000 annually. They say the additional pay is needed to retain employees as the state works to boost the Capitol Police.

Starting salary for Capitol Police officers will be up to $42,500 a year. During the 2022 session, the Mississippi Legislature approved setting aside funding for 37 additional Capitol Police officers.

The officers would patrol the Capitol Complex Improvement District, an area that takes in less than 8 percent of the city of Jackson.

JPD, meanwhile, is budgeted for 356 sworn officers. However, the force is about 100 officers short.

Grizzell told the council he had spoken with the city’s finance department and said reducing the number of budgeted sworn positions to 300 would free up the money needed to cover the increase.

“We know we can’t get to 356 now, but if we can get that money released, and build it back as we go forward, then we can get there,” said Deputy Chief Deric Hearn, reiterating Grizzell’s point. “That way, we will be helping our employees because the pay is not right. With the Capitol Police, what they’re going to do is going to put a big damper on us.”

Tuesday’s discussion comes less than a year after the council approved using American Rescue Plan Act money to raise the salaries to $45,000 for corporals and $48,000 for sergeants, and nearly two years after the council approved raising base pay for new officers, in part, to help with recruiting efforts.

Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote said he supports boosting pay but isn’t sure if he wants to cut positions to do so. He also questions why the department is consistently short on officers, even after pay increases were implemented in the last two years.

“We want a larger police force that’s getting competitive pay, and a highly motivated police force with high morale,” he said. “We also need to spend money on a jail. If that means spending some of the $5 million not spent on pay over the last eight months... then that would be money well spent.”

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