Hamilton County officials need to learn that just because they can get away with using scare tactics on conservative talk radio, where facts don't matter a lot, it doesn't mean voters will fall for the ploy.
Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. appeared last week on Willie Cunningham's afternoon talk show on WLW (700 AM), just two days after an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer analyzed how much was spent on a deal to house overflow jail inmates in Butler County for 19 months.
Readers with long memories will recall that Leis liked the deal when the county commissioners negotiated it in 2005, viewing it as a necessary interim step to deal with an alleged problem with jail overcrowding until a new facility was built here.
Under the deal, Hamilton County taxpayers spent nearly $834,000 for empty jail cells in Butler County under an agreement that paid for 300 jail cells a night, whether they were filled or not. Although Leis stopped shipping inmates there during the last three months of the deal, Hamilton County continued to pay $19,500 per night. That's right — per night. And the beds were empty.
Stating he would've never entered the deal had it been up to him, the sheriff told The Enquirer, "I think Butler County just held us up." At the time, though, Leis was beating the drums to get voter approval for a sales tax increase to build a jail. That proposal and another one this fall both met with defeat.
Cunningham is the go-to guy whenever a Republican politician needs to do a little spin control. While on Willie's show last week, Leis told listeners that he hoped the latest sales tax defeat wouldn't mean he would have to release any "vicious criminals" early due to jail overcrowding; the easily excitable Cunningham mentioned the so-called "Blue-eyed Rapist" as a possible example.
The facts, however, indicate otherwise: County statistics show that between 2003 and 2006, jail overcrowding led to the early release of 807 prisoners — all non-violent offenders. A recent county study revealed the majority of prisoners booked into the Justice Center, or 57 percent, are there for non-violent offenses.
Also, an earlier 2004 jail study commissioned by the county found that people charged with weapon-related offenses comprised only 1.7 percent of the 1,000 inmates sampled.
Obviously there are bureaucratic and processing problems that need to be fixed before voters are asked to approve a $736 million plan to build a new jail and pay for a slate of unspecified programs.
Leis lamented that it would be another decade before one is built. "I'll be gone by then," the sheriff told Willie.
Maybe the next sheriff will get more accomplished by staying off the airwaves and trying to hold a dialogue with elected officials and the public, instead of brow-beating them.
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