Boston — Not many sheriffs approached the problem the way Tommy Robinson did. ''Plain tired of the same old run-around'' on his attempts to ease overcrowding in the Polaski County, Ark., jail, Sheriff Robinson piled 14 inmates into vans, drove them to the nearest state prison, and left them handcuffed to a chain-link fence.
Now, almost two years later, this maverick law officer faces an overcrowding backlog of only 10 inmates rather than 50 to 60. His dramatic action, plus a lawsuit, brought the results he sought - safety for the men and women who must work at the jail, better conditions for the men and women who must be kept there.
But most of the nation's jails - with limited resources, increasing demands, and no Tommy Robinsons - face problems caused by overcrowding, antiquated facilities, and high staff turnover.
Jails are not prisons. While prisons hold only people convicted of serious crimes, jails are designed mostly for people awaiting trial and those serving short-term sentences. Jails vary greatly in size, cost, and population - from small rural jails to large, crowded city jails where 45 percent of the nation's inmates are found.
Prisons are creatures of the state. Counties almost always run jails. Prisons are more selective in design of structure and classification of inmates by crime , age, and length of sentence. Jails must be maximum-security facilities because they take in any and all offenders.
Every state penitentiary has medical facilities and some rehabilitation service. More than 75 percent of the nation's jails have neither.
''You can't just take one jail and say it's a model for all the jails in the US,'' says Francis R. Ford of the National Sheriff's Association (NSA). ''More important, you have to think beyond the jail. Any problem a jail has lies in the way that community approaches its overall criminal justice system. Just like the schools reflect an area, so do the jails.''
''The climate of the local community's approach to criminal justice is a major factor,'' agrees Larry Link of the US Department of Justice's National Institute of Corrections (NIC) in Boulder, Colo.
The NSA identifies five common problems hampering the effective operation of most jails today:
* Personnel heads the list. Due to lack of training, low pay, and high staff turnover this problem is seen as greater than overcrowding.
* Next comes modernization of facilities. Many jails are antiquated, poorly ventilated, and with structures that do not meet minimum standards for fire protection, food services, health, and sanitation.
* Overcrowding is third.
* A lack of recreational space, which is tied to the problem of poor facilities, is fourth.
* Inadequate funding is ranked fifth.
Ten percent of US jails currently are under court order to remedy overcrowding, lack of recreation, old facilities, or lack of medical care. Nearly 16 percent have previously been under court order, and another 20 percent have a lawsuit pending. According to the National Coalition for Jail Reform (NCJR) there are 3,493 jails. Last year there were 6.2 million inmates in them.
NCJR is a consortium of 36 diverse groups such as the National Sheriffs' Association, the American Bar Association, the National Association of Counties, the Police Foundation, and the National Center for State Courts.
But if the problems are well defined, so are solutions to many of them, say correction officials.
''If they took all the public inebriates out of jails, they would no longer have overcrowded jails in many states,'' says Judith Johnson, executive director of the NCJR. ''If they took the public inebriates and the mentally ill, which are overlapping populations, and the juvenile offender out of jail, they could go a long way toward solving the problem of jail overcrowding altogether.''
NCJR's position is simple: If you don't put people in jail who don't belong there, you ease the pressure on the system.
In 1980 the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was amended to require the removal of juveniles from all adult jails by 1987. This reform, already initiated in a number of localities, saves youngsters from the possible assaults and suicides that occur at a high rate among juveniles in adult jails.
Many states have decriminalized public intoxification. NCJR points to rehabilitation programs such as in Los Angeles where the Volunteers of America work with police to divert public inebriates from jail to VOA rehabilitation centers. Taxpayers save $149 per inebriate diverted.
The NCJR also recommends that courts recognize a ''presumption favoring pretrial liberty.'' On any given day, more than 150,000 people are held in local jails in the United States. Some 60 percent of those in jail have been found guilty of a crime and are serving a sentence. The remaining 40 percent are accused but not convicted, according to the NCJR.
Large proportions of those detained are released within a few days. All too frequently a pretrial detainee is held simply because he or she can't post bail. The NCJR estimates that 80 percent of pretrial detainees can't post the bail set for them. The cost of holding a person in jail ranges up to more than $70 a day - or as much as $26,000 a year.
Philadelphia started a pretrial release agency and a system that allows people awaiting trial to pay only a deposit on their bail to ensure their appearance in court. This reduced the Philadelphia pretrial jail population by 28 percent and saved $1.5 million.
''Meaningful jail reform is much more attainable than the public believes,'' Ms. Johnson adds. ''Don't only think of the nation's jails, think of your local jail. Something can be done simply by gathering information and doing some rational planning.''
Smith County in Texas is one place that did just this.
On an average Monday morning the jail in Smith would have as many as 130 inmates. By Monday night, that number would still be as high as 125. But since Smith streamlined its booking procedure, the average has dropped to between 80 and 95.
Three months ago ''what amounted to a systems analysis of our entire (booking and detention) process was conducted by some outside correctional experts,'' says Smith County Judge Robert Hayes. ''It cost us $6,000. We've already made that up in what we've saved in food bills.''
Inefficiencies were wrung out of the system and each person involved in the some 11 predetention steps were sequenced to alert the next person in the process. ''It's not really a jail reform, through management efficiencies things were just speeded up,'' says Judge Hayes.''
Making decisions earlier in the intake process allowed Smith to keep people from being pumped unnecessarily into the system,'' says C.W. Dickerson of the NIC.