AMITE, La. - The Tangipahoa Parish Jail is in its third decade of existence and its age is showing. It's described as antiquated and overcrowded; built to hold a little over 300 inmates, but today squeezes in almost 500.
Jail Administrator Capt. Stuart Murphy said, "We are unable to keep up with maintenance issues."
“It's really created a problem," said Parish President Gordon Burgess. "We've got to do something."
Some parish leaders want that something to be a half-cent sales tax increase that will pay for expanding the current jail, or building a brand new one behind the Amite location, to fit more than 800 inmates. The tax would need voter approval in a special election and would generate more than $8 million a year for 30 years. Current estimates for a new jail run around $50 million. Plans for any surplus funds are detailed in a proposition that the Parish Council considered Monday night. Those plans are to split extra money half and half between the Sheriff’s Office and the court system in the parish.
Parish leaders say the biggest problem right now is that the lack of jail space leads to suspects of minor crimes either getting out of here early or not being arrested at all.
Burgess said, "We've got thousands of warrants out there that have not been served because we don't have the jail space and I think that right there is sending a message to the people who are going to break into your home or steal your property."
Murphy said, "We have to come in and make decisions about who we're going to let go and who we're going to keep and that is a tough decision to make, and to be quite frank, the sheriff's office doesn't want to have to make those decisions any more."
While some council members question whether a tax increase is the answer, everyone agress it's the voters' choice.
Councilman Carlo Bruno said, "We're allowing the residents of the parish to decide if that's what they want to do for their protection and their neighbors' protection. If they want to spend that extra half-cent on a new jail or they want the parish to figure out how to do it without a new tax."
The legislature is currently considering the parish’s request to exceed its sales tax maximum in order to pursue this increase. The next step is getting approval from the State Bond Commission, then from voters in October.