By Kathleen Gray

Some cash-strapped communities across Wayne County are refusing to scrimp on punishing those guilty of misdemeanors, even as they cut services and lay off employees.

At least 19 communities are spending thousands of dollars – some hundreds of thousands – to send people who have been sentenced for crimes like drunken driving, malicious destruction of property or domestic violence to jails in northern Michigan.

They would prefer to use the Wayne County Jail, but many of the offenders would be released by jail officials before serving their full sentences because of overcrowding.  “We send them to Wayne County Jail and they’re back on the street again in a day,” said Livonia Police Chief Robert Stevenson. “It’s a real problem.”

County officials are considering a plan that would worsen the situation, further reducing the number of beds for misdemeanor offenders and giving the jail administrator discretion to release even more prisoners on tether before their full sentences are served.

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.

“When we do an early release, we go through a very rigorous process, ” he said. “We look at the current charge and the person’s criminal history. We’ll only release when the offense is non-assaultive and nonviolent.”

Ignoring set-asides
The county has more than 500 inmates out on tether and also uses residential treatment placement for inmates with mental health or substance abuse problems.  But the county is supposed to reserve 180 beds for misdemeanor inmates from communities outside of Detroit and 180 beds for people sentenced for misdemeanor crimes out of 36th District Court in Detroit.

The overcrowding allows Heard to ignore those set-asides. Currently, about 120-140 beds a day are filled by misdemeanor offenders, Heard said. The rest of the 1,700 beds in the county’s three jail facilities are filled with people charged or sentenced on felony crimes.

The county has an additional 1,200 jail beds that have been closed because of budget constraints. The jail operations are partially funded with a 0.94-mill tax levied on all Wayne County property owners that brings in about $40 million a year. It also charges $35 per day to communities that send their inmates to the jail.

Fees and charges
Neither Oakland nor Macomb counties charge their communities a daily rate for the jail and neither releases inmates early without an order from a judge. Two years ago, Oakland County ended its $2-million-ayear practice of using other county jails to ease overcrowding. Macomb County has never sent its inmates to other counties.

The Wayne County fees and charges have police chiefs steamed. “We have a jail partially funded by Livonia residents, at well over $1 million a year, ” said Livonia Police Chief Robert Stevenson. “And we really have no jail that we can use if we want anyone to spend some time in jail.”

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.”

State transport
Seventeen Wayne County communities contract with Statewide Security Transport, a Livonia company that picks up and drives misdemeanor offenders to county jails outside of Wayne County at a rate of $43 a day. “When we have sentenced misdemeanors that we want them to do the full sentence, we send them there, ” said Taylor Police Chief Dale Tamsen, who spends $400,000 a year for the service.

Many district judges are using alternatives to incarceration, such as tethers, drug courts and substance-abuse treatment programs, but when they want someone to spend some time in the slammer, Wayne County is not the alternative.

“At the end of the day, there are some people whose criminal behavior can only be addressed with jail time, ” said District Judge Geno Salomone of the 23rd District in Taylor.

“I don’t care where they go, ” added 17th District Judge Mark McConnell in Redford Township. “But when we send them to Isabella, they’re more likely to do their full amount of time, which gives some legitimacy to our sentences.”

Possible change
Wayne County wanted to expand the authority of the jail director and presented a proposal to county commissioners last month that would have allowed more inmates to be let out on tether even if the jail wasn’t overcrowded, raised the daily rate to $43 and eliminated the set-asides for misdemeanor offenders.

“Long ago, detention was thought of as four walls and bars, ” said Wayne County corporation counsel William Wolfson. “But not anymore.” The objection from police chiefs and commissioners, however, caused the county administration to put the proposal on the back burner.

Reprinted with permission from the Detroit Free Press

Editor’s Note:
This situation infuriates members of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff’s Association who continue to have members on lay-off even in the midst of over 100 recent retirements from the sheriff’s department.