Thursday, February 12, 2009
(Last modified: 2009-05-13 09:53:06)
Author: Gilbert Soesbee
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

NEWPORT-After a day-long session on Tuesday, the Cocke County Grand Jury submitted a list of 11 recommendations for improvements to the Cocke County Courthouse and jail and for increases in pay for law enforcement officers.

The grand jury's meeting this week came after its January session to consider criminal indictments, after which Circuit Judge Ben W. Hooper II gave the panel a package of previous grand jury recommendations dating back to 1993. Judge Hooper encouraged grand jurors to meet and consider updates and revisions to those previous recommendations.

The report was submitted on Tuesday afternoon. Judge Hooper said on Wednesday that he was pleased with the grand jury's work, calling the report "one of the most positive things in the recent history of Cocke County."

The panel's recommendations run from relatively inexpensive suggestions such as installing a defibrillator in the courthouse and replacing broken glass panes in the building to more big-ticket items such as financing for the construction of a new justice center for Cocke County. The report also recommends increasing the salaries of road officers and jailers in the sheriff's department.

Grand jurors instructed Circuit Court Clerk Peggy Lane to present copies of its report to Cocke County Sheriff Claude Strange, District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn, Cocke County Mayor Iliff McMahan, Newport Mayor Connie Ball, Chief of Police Maurice Shults, county finance officials, and the chairmen of the Newport Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the county legislative body.

Those officials were instructed to report to the grand jury at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 17, "to give a status report as to what progress has been made pertaining to these recommendations."

All of the recommendations are aimed at improving the facilities available to local justice system officials and the safety of officials and the public in the courthouse and jail.

Here, in the order in which they were submitted, is a list of the grand jury's recommendations.

First, the panel recommended that a defibrillator be installed in the Cocke County Courthouse and that "one to two employees of the county be specifically trained to use this device, or that the county jail nurse be on call at all times."

This recommendation comes in the wake of the January 26 death of the father of a murder victim after a hearing in criminal court. After the man collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack.

The grand jury further recommended that "the metal detectors be used immediately and at all times during court proceedings and county commission meetings. Training and personnel for safety precautions will be left to the discretion of the sheriff."

Currently, hand-held metal-detection wands are used to screen spectators if necessary, and there have been no serious problems with anyone trying to bring in a weapon.

But the county has two full-sized metal detectors on the second floor of the courthouse which are standing unused because the sheriff's department has no funds to provide the minimum of two workers needed to operate the equipment.

Grand jurors recommended that all prisoners being brought into the courtrooms "stay shackled and handcuffed at all times except when standing for plea or judgment with their counsel in front of the judge."

The general practice currently in use is to bring inmates in small groups into the courtroom in handcuffs, but to remove the shackles when the defendants are placed in the jury box to wait.

The panel "highly recommend[ed] that our county litter crew and courthouse [trusties] be made up solely of defendants that are currently serving community service or are on probation only. We believe that by leaving inmates incarcerated [will] hopefully diminish the amount of contraband coming into our jails."

This is an issue that was raised by Judge Hooper and by some grand jurors during a meeting with jail officials in January.

Under current practice, inmates are sometimes released from jail on work-release, as jail trusties to clean the county courthouse and other duties, and for court appearances, but as many as 14 inmates, in two crews of seven inmates, may be taken from the jail under supervision to pick up litter along local roadways.

Litter crew supervisors say the inmates are strictly supervised and their routes are kept confidential to minimize contact with other people who might pass drugs or any form of contraband to them.

State inspectors have instructed jail officials not to allow inmates with felony charges and pending cases, who might be escape risks, and inmates with previous escape charges to be released on the "can crew."

Grand jurors recommended "the renovation of the [small] bailiff's office/judge's chambers [between the circuit court clerk's office and the criminal courtroom], specifically the flooring."

Concerning the salaries of beginning deputies and jailers, the grand jury recommended increases to bring them in line with the salaries of similar employees in neighboring counties.

According to the grand jury's figures, the starting salary of a "road officer" in the Cocke County Sheriff's Department is $19,900 per year. That compares to $25,084 in Sevier County, $25,680 in Jefferson County, and $24,500 in Grainger County, for an average salary of $23,791 in the area.

For jailers, Cocke County's starting pay is $17,900 per year, compared to $22,803 in Sevier County, $21,960 in Jefferson County, and $22,800 in Grainger County, an average of $21,366.

Based on those figures, the grand jury recommends that Cocke County increase the starting salary of a beginning deputy by at least $3,891 (to $23,791) and for jailers by at least $3,733 (to $21,633).

To "deter the introduction of contraband into our jails," the grand jury recommended replacing any broken panes of glass in the courthouse and suggested that the windows of the third-floor jail be covered with small mesh screens.

Grand jurors also recommended the "enforcement of a mandatory vehicle seizure after a defendant's fourth DUI conviction, regardless of vehicle ownership."

County officials were also encouraged to move ahead "with plans for a new justice center that include[s] judicial facilities," a measure that would require the county to borrow several million dollars to acquire a site, design plans, and construct the facility.

The panel recommended that "one additional officer from the City of Newport be [assigned] to the Fourth Judicial District Drug Task Force."

Finally, the grand jury recommended that probation and parole department officials distribute and collect pens and pencils to inmates who are required to complete registration and other forms "individually...not as a group," a measure designed to increase safety.

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