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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Drugs, lack of jail hover over Hancock


HANCOCK COUNTY -- The three men who want to be sheriff here all identify the same major problems facing the county, as it still struggles to emerge from under a post-hurricane cloud.

The troubling lack of a county jail and a growing drug problem top the list for Sheriff Steve Garber and challengers Terry Necaise and Nathan "Corky" Hoda. Since none of the candidates is running as a Republican, one of them must get at least 50 percent of the primary vote to avoid a runoff. If that doesn't happen, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters in the primary.

The jail issue comes first, they say: Hurricane Katrina extensively damaged the county jail on Court Street in Bay St. Louis. Nearly two years later, county supervisors are still at a stalemate with FEMA over federal funding for a new lockup.

"We have to get some type of facility going," said Garber, who is seeking a third term as sheriff. Hancock County is paying Pearl River County $30 per day for each male prisoner being housed there, and now the Pearl River County jail itself is overcrowded. Depending upon the severity of their sentences, female prisoners are being sent to jails as far away as Natchez.

Hoda, a former longtime sheriff's deputy and narcotics investigator, said: "The number one thing would be the jail. We have to get something done about that. The county is spending a fortune to pay for sending our prisoners to other jails."

"Nothing is being done," said Necaise, a constable and former reserve police officer. Figure in high gasoline costs and the loss of sheriff's personnel from the county during prisoner transports, and the cost rises even more, he said.

Not the sheriff's solution

But the political reality is that even though the sheriff runs the jail - if there were one - it's up to county supervisors to find a solution. Supervisors recently approved a contract for a prison design and building firm to examine the damaged jail and make recommendations.

Meanwhile, at last report, FEMA officials were still saying damage was not so extensive that the old jail can't be repaired, instead of completely replaced. The county must reach some agreement with FEMA.

"That's a decision the supervisors have to make, and we're working with them," Garber said.

Hoda thinks the county needs to push harder. Necaise agrees, and said he would urge Bay St. Louis and Waveland to also get involved in the struggle, since their arrests contribute to the jail population.

"Some form of decision needs to be made," he said. "There has to be a compromise some place. I think all parties have to sit down in a meeting and work this thing out until something comes together."

$72,000 a year

The office of sheriff is a powerful and well-paid position, with a salary that is set by state law and hinged to population figures. In Hancock County, where the estimated median income was $37,009 in 2005, the sheriff is paid $72,000 a year.

All three candidates bring various degrees of law enforcement and emergency service experience to the race.

Garber began his career as a deputy sheriff in 1985, serving in various capacities. In addition, he was a Hancock County constable from 1992 to 1996 and also worked as an administrator at the Waveland Fire Department. He was elected sheriff in 2000 and won re-election in 2004.

Hoda began in 1979 as a junior deputy in Hancock County. He eventually became a patrol sergeant and also worked in officer training. He was later named the department's lead narcotics investigator, in addition to working fatality traffic accidents and serving with the dive rescue team. He left the Sheriff's Department in 2000 and now owns a construction business.

Necaise is a Hancock County constable and teaches Naval ROTC at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans. He retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer. He went through reserve officer training with Garber's department and said he has also been a reserve state trooper in Florida and completed training at the Kissimmee Police Academy.

Fighting the drug problem

The candidates say drug use, particularly with crack cocaine and methamphetamine, is nearing epidemic proportions in the county. The Sheriff's Department regularly arrests low-level dealers and busts home-style meth labs, often in rural areas.

"We're a leader in drug enforcement in the state," Garber said. He said his department has also been establishing anti-drug awareness programs through schools, churches and community groups, but more needs to be done.

"We've shown that we can arrest," he said. "The problem now is we need to reach these people before they get on these drugs."

Both Hoda and Necaise acknowledge the severity of the drug problem. But as a former narcotics officer, Hoda takes an especially strong stand on the issue.

"It's outrageous right now," he said. "It's like a cancer eating away at this place. It's everywhere."

He thinks the Sheriff's Department should do more by seeking more anti-drug assistance from outside agencies: "We've got to have the state and federal levels more involved."

However, stepping up drug enforcement becomes even more difficult if the county has no place to put its felony prisoners.

"It is a 96-mile round trip from the facility on Longfellow to the Pearl River County jail," Necaise said. Even if a decision on the jail were made tomorrow, he said, "we're still looking at 2½ to three years before we see the inside of a criminal justice facility."

Original article published in Sun Herald on July 29, 2007.

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