The Bradley County Workhouse Committee voted to put control of an alternative sentencing option for those who commit low-level crimes under the authority of the office of the Bradley County mayor.
The decision was made at the committee’s Thursday afternoon meeting, with the group not having met since October. The group had previously debated who would have control of the proposed workhouse, and its members had previously given consideration to putting it under the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office or making it a privately run entity.
Grand jury chairman Alvin Word made the motion, encouraging fellow committee members to delay the decision no longer.
While the workhouse would not be run by the Sheriff’s Office, members said it would still need to have some say in the decisions pertaining to it.
“I support this, but there’s obviously going to have to be some cooperation with the Sheriff’s Office,” said County Commissioner Ed Elkins. “There’s some details that have to be worked out.”
Still, members ultimately agreed to give control of the project to the mayor’s office with a unanimous vote.
The idea of a workhouse has been in the works for about a year, with members of the local committee discussing everything from who would get to take part in the program to how it would work. The idea has been to provide an alternative sentencing option for low-level offenders for those who commit crimes like driving under the influence rather than ones deemed more violent. Inmates who already have jobs would be able to stay at the workhouse, work during the day and return at night to complete their sentences.
Throughout the committee’s discussion, a reoccurring theme has been the idea of taking care of overcrowding at the Bradley County Jail.
At the most recent meeting, Gwen Beavers, the BCSO’s director of corrections, said the number of inmates had continued to climb. As of Thursday afternoon, there were a little over 400 inmates.
Beavers said overcrowding was a problem that many local jails have faced, and personnel from the jail in McMinn County had recently inquired about the possibility of letting one of their inmates serve their time in Bradley County.
She stressed that overcrowding would remain a problem until a new option like a workhouse was put in place.
“Until that’s established and concrete, it’s going to be difficult,” Beavers said.
There was also some debate as to who the workhouse would serve. Some committee members said previous discussions had led them to believe that it would initially begin with just male inmates.
As of late, men had remained the majority, both of those incarcerated and the segment of inmates who qualified for work release.
Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett said the committee had to be careful about making a sentencing option available to those of one gender and not the other. Female inmates who qualified for the program but were denied because of their gender could sue.
“Is there a disparity in sentencing?” he asked. “If so, you’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit.”
Denise Messer, a detention facility specialist for the Tennessee Corrections Institute, said other counties in the state that have had workhouses only open to men have offered additional sentencing options just for women, to compensate for them not having the workhouse option. That, she said, is permitted under state law and tends to draw less criticism from the female inmates themselves.
While the committee did decide who would run the workhouse facility, there was still confusion over what would qualify someone to be sentenced to the workhouse instead of the jail. County Commissioner Louie Alford said there needs to be a concrete list of the types of inmates that would qualify for the workhouse program.
“Somebody needs to get together and decide who’s going to be involved,” he said, cautioning the committee against “spinning tires” on the issue.