Traverse City Record-Eagle

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March 23, 2014

Commissioners eye new GT jail

TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County commissioners might dust off a decade-old proposal to build a new jail.

An inmate influx recently stretched past Grand Traverse County jail’s current 168-bed capacity and caused officials to house excess inmates in neighboring jails. Commissioner Sonny Wheelock said burgeoning inmate numbers show it’s past time to build a new jail.

“To my mind, there’s no sense to sitting on our hands,” he said. “ ... The need is definitely there; it’s been there for a long time.”

Building a new jail would be a costly venture — potentially $30 million — and officials don’t have answers to important questions about alternatives, current needs and trends, funding and locations. County elected officials last week asked county Administrator Dave Benda to present them with a timeline and recommendations on how to move ahead.

“They have big decisions to make before they rush forward,” Benda said.

‘It’s falling apart’

Wheelock was a member of a 2004 “Blue Ribbon Committee” of county officials and citizens who prompted numerous changes in the local justice system and a short-term solution to then-overcrowding: a jail expansion.

The group also found the county needed a new 250-bed jail in the long-term, but officials put the recommendation on the back-burner as local and national crime rates dipped and the inmate population stabilized. That changed when the jail’s daily population ticked upward over the past year.

Grand Traverse County Jail Administrator Bob Hall said the average population in February hit 171 inmates. Excess inmates ended up in jails in Leelanau and Charlevoix counties at a cost of $30 a day.

That’s less than the $56 a day it costs Grand Traverse County to normally house inmates, but Hall said other counties only accept misdemeanor offenders without serious health or behavioral issues. He said lodging inmates at other jails creates additional logistical problems and transportation costs.

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