Overcrowding challenges Southwest Michigan jails

 

By BRANDON HOWELL

Capital News Service

 

LANSING – Southwest Michigan county jails are dealing with overcrowded facilities.

 

“We experience overcrowding off and on,” said Capt. Tim Schuler, administrator of the St. Joseph County Jail.  The jail was four inmates above capacity as recently as Feb. 11 and its population often fluctuates above and below its 165-inmate capacity.

 

In rare cases, the jail has asked a judge for an inmate’s early release to make room.

“In the past year, that has only happened once,” Schuler said.

 

Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association, said early release is a huge problem all over the state.

 

“If you’re releasing prisoners early, the public is being placed at risk earlier,” he said.  “The fact is, sometimes the only time you’re safe from predators is when they’re locked up.  That’s a horrible thing to say but it’s absolutely true.”

 

Jungel said that it’s wrong for county jails and state prisons to release inmates early because public safety should never be compromised for the sake of economics.

 

“Government has no greater responsibility than the protection of its citizens,” he said.  “Everything else pales in comparison.”

 

John Cordell, public information specialist for the Department of Corrections, disagreed, saying the crime rate hasn’t increased because of early release and initiatives put in place to help returned offenders provide a safety net for the public.

 

“Today with community partners and law enforcement, we are supervising them better than ever,” he said.

 

But Jungel said that early releases lessen the impact of being behind bars.

 

“We’ve really diminished punishment in prison,” he said.  There’s an assumption that, ‘If I get sentenced two to 10, I’m getting out in two.’  That’s the wrong assumption.  The assumption should be, ‘If I get sentenced two to 10, I’m going to do 10 unless I’m a model prisoner.’”

 

Advocates of early release say it is limited to nonviolent offenders who behave well behind bars.

 

In St. Joseph County, Schuler said reduced sentences only happen for civil offenders, such as accumulated traffic violations.

 

“We work back and forth with district and circuit court judges to have them review some of the cases to see if they could possibly change the sentencing on some of them that aren’t violent offenders, like child support, fines and costs,” he said.

 

But Jungel countered, “I’m really tired of hearing the governor say, ‘We’re releasing people who are not a threat to society.’  That in and of itself is disingenuous.

 

“We’re releasing people from prison who have been a threat to society.  There is no quantifiable way to say who is and who isn’t going to be a threat to society,” he said.

 

The Berrien County Jail is near its capacity and some times operates at highly crowded levels, but Capt. Mike Bradley said the jail can handle the situation.

 

“Right now we’re maintaining our own,” he said.  “We’re able to work through the systems we have in place to keep the population.”

 

Like St. Joseph County, the Berrien County Jail experiences regular fluctuations in its number of inmates, Bradley said.

 

“The population does go up and down all the time.  But we’ve always been able to meet the state mandates on overcrowding through tether programs and alternative sentencing programs,” he said.

 

Tether programs require released offenders to wear a monitoring bracelet that confines them to only a few places, usually their homes and places of work.

 

“The numbers are always there.  We’re always running high.  When we hit our numbers, we’re able to divert folks to other programs or early releases,” Bradley said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.