BY MATT TROUTMAN
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Officials want to reduce inmate numbers in the Grand Traverse County jail before a population surge stretches the facility beyond its state-approved capacity.
The inmate population in the past six months has pushed close to filling — and at times has surpassed — the jail’s 168 available beds — and Tuesday’s count reached 160 inmates.
Sheriff Tom Bensley said the jail is about 16 inmates above its four-year average and asked the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners to approve money to board inmates in other counties before overcrowding occurs during the jail’s peak fall months.
“We did not expect what’s occurring to occur, or we would have planned and tried to budget for it,” Bensley told commissioners last week.
Commissioners told sheriff’s officials to offer more details on cost and inmate flow before they consider the funding proposal at their regular meeting today.
“If the county board is going to allocate additional money, we need to know what’s going in the jail,” said Commissioner Larry Inman.
Jail bed space was trimmed from 194 to 168 after its work release building was closed because of cost concerns. Jail Administrator Bob Hall said the jail loses flexibility when it reaches 80 percent of its capacity because inmate classifications used to separate violent offenders from the rest of the population can turn a two-bed cell into a one-bed cell.
A rush of inmates in the spring that spiked jail population to 191 already prompted the county to send inmates to Leelanau County in March and April at a cost of $30 per day.
“We haven’t boarded (Grand Traverse inmates in) significant numbers since 2005 or 2006 when we got the new jail,” said Leelanau County Jail Administrator Lt. Todd Roush.
Judges may authorize early releases of inmates if the jail becomes overcrowded. Commissioner Herb Lemcool said commissioners need to weigh whether boarding inmates is preferable than an early release.
Prosecutor Bob Cooney said he supports diversionary programs such as community corrections and sobriety courts, but questioned their effectiveness without the threat of jail.
“If you don’t have that, then those programs will no longer be effective,” he said.
Bensley said he could not predict the exact costs, but estimated that 15 inmates per day lodged in other county jails for the rest of the year would cost $67,500, not including medical and transportation expenses. He also estimated it would still be twice as expensive to reopen the work release building than to board inmates elsewhere.
Inman said boarding out inmates may turn out to be an “interim” solution.
“If this is going to be a continued trend, we need to start the process on the need to expand the facility,” Inman said.