With the opening of an addition to Columbia County Detention Center only about a year away, some area judges say criminals should think twice.
That's because in the near future, repeat offenders could be spending longer sentences instead of a few days, a fine or community service work. Simply put, with more jail space, there'll be more prisoners.
"It will definitely give us more flexibility in sentencing," said Superior Court Judge William Fleming. "For instance, there may be some DUI offenses in where a person is a second or third offender and this person should get more than 48 hours in jail. We might say someone should serve six months in jail. Right now, though, we're not really in a position to do that because of the population and capacity of the jail."
Columbia County's jail addition will provide 248 additional beds -- up from 91 now.
Last year, the jail averaged 132 inmates a day. Some inmates sleep on mattresses on cell floors. With the addition, there should be enough beds with room to spare.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, the state has the fifth-highest rate of probation, averaging 2,702 adults on probation per every 100,000 residents. Probation also is cheaper than incarceration, costing taxpayers $1.32 per day per probationer, compared with $6 per day to jail an inmate.
But for Columbia County Probate Court Judge Pat Hardaway, probation has not been the only option to an overcrowded jail.
"Of course, a lot of the cases that we have here mandated jail time," she said. "But a lot of the time when we would revoke some probation or something rather than put them in jail, we do in-house suspension with the electronic monitoring."
Still, she said, such a punishment can only go so far.
"Sometimes the only way you can stop these folks is to lock them up," she said. "You can suspend their driver's license, which doesn't seem to stop them. So, (the jail addition) will definitely be a good thing."
Sheriff Clay Whittle said he hopes longer sentences benefit the county.
"No. 1, I want to get some money back from the prisoners," he said. "We have to pay for their food and medical, and they don't pay a dime. So one of the things we're looking at is using them in a community service role."
The sheriff said he expects an increase of only 20 to 30 new prisoners at any time from the tighter sentencing. Violent criminals already serve their jail time regardless of space restrictions, he said.
If the number of repeat offenders were to rise dramatically, though, the jail is designed to handle it, the sheriff said. The expansion could provide as many as 600 cells in the future with the addition of single-cell pods.
"It should keep us for a long time -- 15 to 20 years," Sheriff Whittle said. "It's better to go on and get that now and get the infrastructure in place, because down the line when we're averaging 250 a day, we'll need another pod of 64."
With Georgia statistics showing a state average of 502 inmates for every 100,000 residents -- a population Columbia County is fast approaching -- inmate growth may be all but a foregone conclusion.
"Once jail space is available," Judge Fleming said, "we typically have no problem filling it up, unfortunately."
Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 868-1222,Ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.