Before Grand Traverse County officials expend a lot of time and energy toward justifying a new $30 million jail, they need to answer some essential questions: Why is the inmate population growing? Is this a short- or long-term situation? What steps beyond building a new jail can be taken to slow that growth?
Ten years ago a so-called “blue-ribbon” committee wrestled with the same question but managed to resist the rush to build. Instead, the group prompted numerous changes in the local justice system and a short-term solution to then-overcrowding: a jail expansion.
The panel predicted the county would eventually need to build a 250-bed jail. But 10 years down the road, the jail only recently exceeded its 168-bed capacity by three inmates. And that only happened because the inmate population has risen over just the past year.
So the need for a 250-bed jail has not only not materialized, but the jail’s current population has only recently exceeded capacity — and by just a handful of inmates. Further, the jail has been able to farm out inmates to jails in Leelanau and Charlevoix counties for just $30 a day — well below the $56 a day it costs Grand Traverse County to normally house inmates in its own jail.
There’s more. The current jail actually has 26 additional beds that are generally reserved for work-release inmates; the county usually uses only a few of them at a time. So there is the potential to house 15 or 20 more inmates, though officials say making the needed changes could be difficult. Would $1 milion, as opposed to $30 million, do the job? That’s certainly worth pursuing.
All this underscores the fact that there are a host of questions to be asked and answered before a pro-jail bandwagon is rolled out and people start jumping on. There are other opportunities to deal with overcrowding that should be on the table.