Traverse City Record-Eagle

Our Views

June 15, 2014

Editorial: County has yet to prove need for $30 million jail

From the start, the conversation was more “could we?” than “must we?” More “can we?” than “do we absolutely have to?”

When you’re talking $30 million for a new jail and maybe more after that for a new sheriff’s department building, “can we?” doesn’t cut it.

Based on a bump in the number of inmates at the Grand Traverse County jail in February and April, county commissioners started talking about building a new jail at a cost of up to $30 million.

They even had a couple of federal corrections experts in last week to tour the jail and create a report.

It’s the kind of approach — lay out a problem, bring in sympathetic experts and proceed step by inevitable step — that so often leads to a preferred outcome.

County records show the jail’s average daily population climbed to 181 inmates in April after reaching 171 in February. The legal maximum is 191 inmates, but the actual limit is 162 to 168, depending on the mix (maximum- to minimum-security) of inmates at any given time.

County Administrator Dave Benda said those numbers do not appear to be an anomaly.

While county officials have focused on a new jail, what they haven’t yet done is create a baseline to determine where the local law enforcement system stands now, where we may be heading in terms of numbers and kinds of sentences and what the options are.

Put the questions first, get the facts, and then see where those facts lead.

Some questions include:

StrokeStyle/$ID/Solidn Is the April spike in inmate numbers a trend, an aberration or something else? The county needs hard numbers over an extended period to start formulating a rational policy.

StrokeStyle/$ID/Solidn What is the future of alternate sentencing options like ankle tethers and work release? Right now 26 beds in what is called the “500 section” of the jail sit empty because there are too few minimum–security and work-release inmates to justify keeping the area — which is totally separate from the main jail — operating.

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