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Jail population a crisis level in Coconino County

Managers of the Coconino County Jail say the inmate population has reached “crisis” levels for the third time in three years.

The county Sheriff’s Office said the surge in prisoners is making it harder to manage various groups of inmates in a way that prevents conflict and is reducing how much money the jail can make from renting beds to state and federal agencies.

And if the problem persists, the jail might have to erect a “tent city” next summer to handle the overflow, especially if it must house more state prisoners for free.

The Arizona Daily Sun reports that the sheriff’s office sent a memo to local law enforcement, prosecutors and judges last week asking them to do whatever they can to help alleviate the problem. That means citing and releasing offenders when safe to do so and expediting the judicial process.

The problem started earlier this summer as the Flagstaff transient population rose with warming temperatures in Phoenix. Most of the increase in inmates has come from misdemeanor offenders booked on charges like disorderly conduct or simple assaults. Felony bookings have not increased.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a spike in population to this extent,” said county Sheriff Bill Pribil. “In summer, we usually see population increases because we have a lot more transients coming to Flagstaff. But we’ve seen an unusually high increase this summer.”

The jail typically classifies inmates and separates them by gender, criminal sophistication, history, mental illness and other characteristics. Mixing potentially incompatible populations can increase the risk of an assault on officers and other inmates.

To manage populations safely, the jail tries to maintain an 80 percent occupancy. It’s currently above 90 percent.

Pribil said the surge has implications for the jail’s future, with legislation taking effect next summer that will require the county to house state inmates sentenced to less than a year behind bars.

Rather than pay the county to house these inmates, the state can force the county accept the inmates for free or force it to pay the state an unspecified daily fee not to take them.

The jail currently generates about $2 million annually by renting beds to agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Office and the Arizona Department of Corrections.

On a typical night, the jail will rent about 100 of its nearly 600 beds. This summer, they’ve only been able to rent around 75 beds per night.

“This could be a double whammy,” Pribil said. “At this point, we have the capacity to absorb the increase. But that ability has come at the expense of lost rental bed revenue.”

The sheriff’s office is trying to stay ahead of the curve by brainstorming ways they can continue to make money and properly manage inmates even if the population continues to swell, or if the situation is exacerbated next summer.

Among the fixes being considered is a tent city similar to the one used by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The tent housing could be operational within three weeks, if required, but would only be possible during the summer months in Flagstaff, Pribil said.

A more comprehensive solution might be a regional detox, treatment and rehabilitation center. Pribil recently visited a facility in the Gallup, N.M., area that he thinks might work well in northern Arizona.

That New Mexico center is a partnership between counties, the state and the Navajo Nation. Pribil said there is discussion about trying to get state funding and a possible partnership with the Navajo Nation for a facility in Flagstaff.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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