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Published: Wednesday, 5/5/2004

Counties fight bid to shift prisoners

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Monroe County jail and other county lockups would house nonviolent state inmates if the legislation is approved. The Monroe County jail and other county lockups would house nonviolent state inmates if the legislation is approved.
DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

MONROE - Legislation before the Michigan Senate that could send more inmates to already crowded county jails has raised the ire of sheriffs, judges, and other local officials.

"I'm opposed to it," said Monroe County Sheriff Tilman Crutchfield. "What the Department of Corrections is trying to do is reduce their budget. But by doing so they're pushing their inmates to county jails, and along with that are the costs involved."

The state is facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion next year and officials are threatening to increases taxes if they can't find places to cut spending. Near the top of their list is the $1.8 billion state corrections budget. As a result, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has asked the Legislature to approve a bill that will alter sentencing guidelines for certain nonviolent offenders that, rather than prison, would send them to county jails or into nonincarcerated programs.

If approved, the legislation would keep 550 inmates out of prison next year and save the state about $3 million, said Russ Marlan, corrections department spokesman. That money would go to the state's 83 counties to help them defer the cost of an increased jail population, Mr. Marlan said.

The key issue, he noted, is the state's rising prison population, which will reach its capacity of 50,000 by the end of next year.

"We're assuming the legislation will pass because if it doesn't, we will need an additional funding to open up prison facilities that are closed at this time," he said.

He said it would cost $66 million for the additional 1,500 beds the corrections department would gain from reopening prisons in Jackson and Ionia.

"The money would have to come from somewhere else in the general fund," he said.

Mr. Crutchfield said the money the state is offering to pay all the counties - $3 million next year, $9 million in 2005, and $11 million in 2006 - isn't enough to cover the increased costs of caring for more inmates. Monroe's 343-bed jail averages about 350 inmates on a given day, though an unspecified number of them stay only for a day or two, he said.

Sheriff Stanley Burchadt of Hillsdale County, who also opposes the legislation, said his 67-bed jail could not handle the new inmates he expects should the bill pass.

"I would guess that we would need 25 to 30 extra beds, and this county can't afford it right now," he said.

In Lenawee County, where a new jail will open in the fall, Sheriff Larry Richardson is another vocal opponent of the bill.

"We're 100 percent against it," he said. "It's shifting the burden from the state to local taxpayers."

Mr. Richardson's concern is that local judges will be forced to send felons previously earmarked for prison to jail while convicts normally sentenced to jail may do no time at all.

Mr. Marlan said the inmates targeted by the legislation - low-level offenders - shouldn't be in prison anyway.

Judge Jack Vitale, of Monroe County's district court, who deals with low-level offenders, said it's likely he would sentence fewer people to the county jail should the legislation pass. Mr. Vitale, who founded the county's successful Jail Alternative Service Program, nevertheless is not a legislation proponent.

"It all boils down to money," he said. "In a perfect world, if we had more money we would be building more prisons. But we have to look for alternatives for nonviolent prisoners."

Mr. Marlan said state officials have been meeting regularly with sheriffs, judges, and other groups that oppose the legislation. He said he is hopeful a compromise can be reached.

"[This] is about rehabilitation and doing it most effectively as a result of increased costs," he said.

Contact George J. Tanber at:

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.



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