State sues judge over early release of inmates from aging jail

SOMERVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The state has sued General Sessions Judge Mike Whitaker in a dispute over the early release of inmates from the county's aging jail, which the judge has described as a "fire trap."

The lawsuit was filed in Fayette County Circuit Court on behalf of Mike Dunavant, the district attorney for the 25th Judicial District.

At least 15 inmates have been freed this week from the jail east of Memphis under Whitaker's orders, either to probation, drug rehab or home, according to General Sessions Court Clerk Connie Doyle.

Whitaker, 62, has described the released inmates as "low-end offenders" who were all nonviolent.

He could not be reached for comment at work or at home.

The lawsuit says Whitaker has usurped the constitutional and statutory authority of the attorney general in deciding which cases would proceed to prosecution.

The judge also failed to follow state guidelines on the early release of inmates, the complaint said.

The lawsuit asks the court to void Whitaker's May 21 order that limits charges police may bring on misdemeanor cases, and calls for the early release of certain inmates.

Whitaker has said the jail built in 1957 threatens the safety of inmates. He said he could not wait until November when the county's new $16 million jail opens.

Sheriff Bobby Riles has disagreed with Whitaker's assessment of the jail, saying it passed fire inspection last August and has received $35,000 in upgrades in recent months.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)