BANNOCK COUNTY, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - For years, Sheriff Lorin Nielsen has said the Bannock County Jail is too small.
“We’ve been overcrowded for six or seven years,” Nielsen said.
Riots, fights and lack of space caused a headache for the county. And the cost of building a new jail doesn't appeal to all the county taxpayers.
But Nielsen, who retires in one week, said he's seen a possible new solution born from the pandemic.
In order to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail, courts sent home some people on their "own recognizance," or OR, which is like a no-cash bail.
People who would normally be incarcerated for a DUI or misdemeanor violations are being cited with a court hearing instead.
Not only has the practice kept the virus out, it's had unexpected benefits.
“It’s been a great relief,” Nielsen said.
On Wednesday, there are about 250 people incarcerated in the jail. At its worst, the jail would reach capacity of 333 people.
Sgt. J. Clark has worked in the jail for more than a decade, and he's seen the worst of the overcrowding problem.
“I’ve seen where we don’t have any beds and we can’t move inmates anywhere and we have standing room only in the booking area,” Clark said.
Clark said the empty beds have been like a breath of fresh air.
“There’s less fights, there’s less contention, it makes it easier on the deputies when that goes on,” Clark said.
In his talks with the county prosecutor, public defenders and other members of the justice system, Nielsen said its possible this practice could continue past the pandemic.
“I hope that we can learn from this and hopefully take a look at alternatives to what we’re using our jails for, because it’s very clear nationwide that our jails and our prisons are overused,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen would like to focus on finding alternative procedures for people typically booked on drug charges or mental health episodes.