Who’s In Custody In Benton County?

Joyce Coates
County Reporter
Sheriff Eric Knox and his deputies are grateful to the people of Benton County who braved the wind and cold on April 3 to vote in favor of a new jail. A reality at last, although the multi-phased project will take another 2 to 2-1/2 years to complete; it gives an extra dose of encouragement to the Sheriff’s Office as they continue to persevere through the present circumstances.  
Some of the greatest challenges have been mitigated by stop-gap measures approved by the county commissioners to include: leasing offices in a building nearby to relocate deputies from the second floor of the jailhouse which had become a health hazard from infestation of bat-hordes; arranging professional and safe removal and preventing the return of thousands of the bats; and closing off the second floor to protect the health and safety of the sheriff and jailers working on the lower floors, as well as those in custody.  
Despite the remaining and now temporary challenges and inconveniences, everyone concerned is looking forward to a new, state of the art operations center and jail. That includes any future occupants of the new facility’s detention cells.  
For several decades overcrowding has been and will remain a problem until the new jail opens. Often in recent years, nearly three times the intended maximum capacity of 20 persons have been held in Benton County’s dilapidated and deteriorating jail. It can be said that it was state of the art and deemed adequate - in the 60s.
Not only could the situation be much worse, but the county’s budget would be stretched beyond its limits if even a few of the more than 500 individuals with warrants outstanding were sought out and arrested. Because of lack of space to house them, after being booked, they would immediately have to be transferred to other county jails, at a cost to Benton County of $40-$50 per diem for each. 
With that in mind, Sheriff Knox and deputies purposely do not search for every person with an outstanding warrant. Officers will take them into custody if any should randomly, or by reason of additional crimes or violations, come back into contact with law enforcement. 
Chronic overcrowding leads to another problem, the challenge to comply with Missouri’s statutory requirements for separation of prisoners. Specifically, Title XIII, Chapter 221, Section 221.050 states:
Persons confined in jails shall be separated and confined according to sex.  Persons confined under civil process or for civil causes shall be kept separate from criminals.
Specifically, as Sheriff Knox posted March 27 on Facebook: “violent offenders cannot be housed with non-violent offenders. Young men and women that are 17 years old should not be housed with other men and women that are over 18 years and older. Those with mental issues or ones who are suicidal cannot be housed with the regular population and anyone with medical conditions must be sent elsewhere due to lack of medical facilities and a non-sterile environment” (https://www.facebook.com/SheriffKnox/posts/884365668409087). 
Jail Administrator Greg Wenberg, said the population at any given time includes a majority of “detainees” – a person held in custody prior to trial or hearing; and fewer if any “inmates” - a person serving a sentence of less than 1 year or being held while awaiting sentencing or transfer to another facility after a conviction.
Wenberg said his standard intake procedure includes assessing each arrestee as part of the decision-making on where s/he should be housed based on the options available. Males and females, and juveniles and adults, are separated as the law requires, and where the appropriate space is available. If more are detained than beds are available for them, they will have to be transported to another jail. Henry County, however, currently has no space available for females; they are transported to Pettis County.
Of course, transporting detainees to other county jails, driving them to and from court appearances, requires additional resources and deputies’ time, as well as the cost of fuel and wear and tear on the vehicles.
Benton County has only one isolation cell. If more than one detainee is arrested for drunkenness, for instance, because the other counties will not accept a transfer in that case, Wenberg has no choice but to house one of them with the general population. The jailer makes every effort to preclude accidents or altercations among the jail population, recognizing the likelihood of same is greater when one or more detainees are intoxicated or on certain drugs. 
As of Friday, April 13, there were 17 males and 7 females in custody, and five (5) others housed elsewhere. Among the total of 29, 21 are charged with felonies ranging from 2nd degree murder and assault, to felony bad checks. Twenty-eight (28) detainees are awaiting appearances before a judge; and one (1) inmate is also waiting to go to court.  He is already serving a sentence for crimes committed in another jurisdiction and was brought here on a writ to face charges for acts committed in Benton County. He will be sent back to the Department of Corrections, potentially with an extended sentence.
Currently, one male detainee who suffers with mental problems cannot be housed with others, as Knox pointed out. With no other options, he was placed alone in a 4-man cell which means that three detainees had to be housed by another county.
As mentioned before, the number of persons incarcerated has reached nearly 60 in years prior. For the first few months of 2018, the lowest count has been 20, and the highest 30. Wenberg recalls the longest a detainee has been held in Benton County jail was about 3 years; the current average time in custody is two weeks. The average is higher than it would normally be because one detainee has been in custody since December 3, 2017; multiple continuances were granted while his public defender and the prosecuting attorney negotiate the charges and length of sentence. 
Along with dealing with outstanding warrants as explained above, Knox spoke about other ways his team works to avoid the high costs associated with overcrowding. They can decide to issue warnings or citations versus making arrests for certain misdemeanors like driving without a license. Sheriffs have discretionary authority that gives them leeway in such cases.
For example, if a person is stopped for driving without a license while on the way to work, and gets arrested and taken into custody, s/he loses their job for not showing up. Without a job, they cannot pay the fines, let alone meet other obligations, and because they cannot make bail either, they are in custody longer. That means they cannot look for other work, even if they could get another job after being fired, especially when a background check reveals a recent arrest.  
Knox wants people in situations like that to have at least one chance to turn things around. If they follow through by paying the fines, correcting the problem, or showing up for court, all is well. If not, he said, he will seldom give them a second chance.
Looking to the future while living in the present, everyone in the Sheriff’s Office will keep on fulfilling their regular and sworn duties during each phase of the new jail construction project. Meanwhile, they will be training to become proficient in the details of operating an entirely new electronic system, training that will continue until opening day. No more jangling sets of keys on giant keyrings! Training will take place statewide with travel scheduled to modern facilities where they will observe and practice the processes.
The 80-bed capacity will solve the overcrowding problem immediately.  Everyone already in custody and any new detainees will be housed as dictated by and in full compliance with applicable law. 
“The goal is not to fill the cells of the new jail when the doors open,” Knox said. “The best-case scenario would be to have empty beds to rent out to other counties and bring in extra income for our county,” he added.