With the news last week that the Oakland County Jail was over its inmate capacity for the first time since 2007, prompting the early release through sentence reductions of over 200 inmates serving time for non-violent misdemeanors and felonies, there is again a need for a discussion and thoughtful dialogue on ways to mitigate any future jail overcrowding emergencies that would trigger the early release of individuals serving time at the facility that experienced an overcrowding epidemic between 2005 and 2007.
A formal jail overcrowding emergency was declared on March 2. Such an emergency is declared when the jail’s inmate population exceeds capacity for seven consecutive days. By Friday, March 16, the county was required to do “whatever it can within legal means to reduce the jail population to (25 inmates) below capacity,” said Oakland County Circuit Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner.
On March 16, a 14-day window began during which Oakland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Nanci J. Grant was required to determine, of all sentenced inmates, “which ones do not present a high risk to the public safety.”
The inmates scheduled to receive sentence reductions this time around include those sentenced for both misdemeanors and felonies, but not anyone sentenced for assaultive or drunk driving offenses. In addition, inmates were screened for pending warrants out of other counties, as well as parole violations in other jurisdictions.
Those scheduled to receive sentence reductions included inmates incarcerated for crimes such as possession of marijuana, driving with a suspended license, shoplifting, larceny, disorderly conduct, driving without a license, and breaking and entering into a vehicle, among others. Those with minor in possession of alcohol charges as well as writing a forged check were also slated to see a sentence reduction.
According to county law enforcement officials, a budget cut of over $16 million prompted a work release program that averaged about 150 participating inmates to be reconfigured into a virtual work release program. That effectively cost the county about 100 jail beds because only about 50 people are currently participating in the revised work release program, according to officials.
Two top county officials, including Oakland County Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Gingell (R-Lake Orion), have said the inmate overcrowding emergency is unlikely to spur discussion on a new jail facility, something that had taken place during the two-year window when nine overcrowding situations occurred. Thousands of non-violent inmates received sentence reductions between 2005 and 2007 in order to alleviate the jail overcrowding emergencies.
Officials rightly point to budget concerns caused by the lackadaisical economy as the prime reason why a new jail facility — and presumably any expansion or physical modifications to the existing jail — is highly unlikely as a topic of discussion among county powerbrokers in the coming weeks and months.
We understand that, and we take no issue with the assertion that the county is navigating choppy fiscal waters to ensure that the budget is balanced and that necessary services are provided.
But any possible discussions on ways to stave off future jail overcrowding emergencies need to examine all available options — including building a new jail facility, though there’s only a fraction of a chance (and perhaps even less than that) that such a massive project is currently in the cards; expanding or reconfiguring the existing jail (also an unlikely prospect); and procedural methods such as additional alternative incarceration programs that may be employed.
We suspect that, if this overcrowding emergency is the first in a string of many, similar to the situation a few years ago, a call for closer examination of possible remedies will begin — as it should.
In addition to the sheer financial enormity of constructing a new jail, or even expanding the existing facility, also throwing a wrench in that equation is that fact that it’s an election year when all elected county officials — the 25 members of the Board of Commissioners and the six full-time elected executive officials, including county Executive L. Brooks Patterson and county Sheriff Michael Bouchard — face the prospect of losing their jobs.
Given the politics involved, it’s far-fetched to think that county officials would mount a successful political campaign backing such a gargantuan expenditure when other critical areas of the county budget have been whacked and, in some cases, eliminated entirely.
But regardless, all the options — however feasible or however remote — need to be part of any dialogue addressing jail overcrowding moving forward. Our hope is that every possible angle is explored.