The Freep on Overcrowding in Wayne County Jails
The Detroit Free Press has this article on how suburban Detroit jurisdictions prefer to send inmates serving misdemeanor sentences up to jails in northern Michigan — at higher cost — rather than to the Wayne County Jail, where they’re likely to be released early because of overcrowding:
In 2009, Westland spent nearly $600,000 to send hundreds of misdemeanor offenders to the Isabella County Jail in mid-Michigan.
It’s not only the money that has made Police Chief James Ridener angry. It’s the reason why he and other officials in Westland feel they have to send the prisoners north: If he sent the inmates to the Wayne County Jail, they’d end up back on the street in days, rather than the weeks or months the judge sentenced them to serve.
“As soon as a judge sentences somebody to 60 days, we would never ship them to Wayne County,” Ridener said. “Because there’s the good chance of an early release, and then we have to deal with them again.”
Wayne County is in a unique position in the state. Under a judicial consent decree signed in 1991, the director of jails has the authority to release inmates when faced with overcrowding, a virtual daily occurrence at the Wayne County Jail, said Jeriel Heard, the county’s jail director.
Livonia spends about $400,000 a year to send offenders to Isabella County, which has been accepting Wayne County inmates for nearly 20 years. It helps pay for the operations of the jail, which has undergone three expansions in the last few decades and now has room for 196 prisoners, said Lt. Tom Recker, administrator of the Isabella County Jail.
The average length of stay in Isabella County is 21 days.
“That $400,000 is four police officers for us,” Stevenson said. “But that’s the choice that we make so the message is out there that if you come to Livonia and do a crime, you’re going to do the time.”
I see a couple of reasons why this might be a problematic situation: First, it doesn’t seem fiscally smart if counties are paying more per-prisoner to send inmates to other counties, when they’re presumably also already paying into the Wayne County jail system — though perhaps it still works out to a savings over, say, building a new jail in Wayne County. (Interestingly though, the article also notes that Wayne County has 1,200 beds it’s not using “due to budget constraints” — if the jail is endemically overcrowded, why not find the dollars to re-open that wing?) Second, though the article doesn’t discuss this, presumably it’s harder on inmates and their families if they are sent to do their time far from home.
Balanced against those considerations, though, is the worry driving this practice, mentioned by a few of the officials interviewed: that the judicial system would lose legitimacy if misdemeanor offenders always knew they would only have to serve a few days, regardless of their actual sentence. I would be interested to see the empirics on that, but it makes enough intuitive sense. What doesn’t make as much sense to me is the additional implication, suggested by several of the officials interviewed, that this practice is somehow necessary or beneficial for public safety. It seems like the category being affected is relatively low-level misdemeanor offenders — the example given by the police chief, in the excerpt quoted above, is a 60-day sentence, and the article also says the average length of stay in the upstate jail is 21 days. Is there really a huge difference between having that person “back on the street” in 5 or 10 days, as opposed to 21 days, or 60? They’re going to be “back on the street” relatively soon anyway. It’s not like we’re talking about people who’d be getting out in a few days instead of 5 years; more like, getting out in a few days instead of a few more days.