Counties, state battle over inmate funding

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Northeastern Michigan jails are struggling to deal with Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s veto of money to reimburse county jails for prisoners, but more funding may be on its way soon.
The reimbursement program allows some felons who would be otherwise housed in state prisons to serve their sentences in county jails.
“Housing prisoners in county jails is one third of the cost to keep them in Michigan prisons,” said Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, vice-chair of the House Corrections Appropriations Subcommittee.
Proos said the governor vetoed funding for the program, which was allotted $16.4 million, to help balance the budget.
“It’s shifted the burden to the counties,” Proos said.
Megan Brown, Granholm’s deputy press secretary, said funding was cut because it would have continued to reimburse counties for some offenders who may not have ended up in state prison.
However, Brown said Granholm supports the program and is looking to reinstate it. The governor has asked the Legislature to restore $7.5 million for the remainder of this fiscal year, Brown said.
In addition, Brown said Granholm is recommending restoring full support for 2011.
Justin Eastman, jail administrator for Gladwin County, said the loss of program funding has been felt “quite detrimentally.”
“It was a major source of ways to curb the cost of running a county jail,” Eastman said. “Without it, it’s definitely felt.”
Under the program, county jails were paid $43.50 per day for each eligible prisoner who qualified for reimbursement, contrasted with the $68 to $80 per day required to house someone in state prison.
But because of the veto, state prisoners are still in county jails while the state saves both amounts.
“They’re stiffing us,” said Terry Jungel said, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.
Jungel said he does not know how many state prisoners are housed in county jails, but added that the program was more successful than the governor originally expected.
“The mere fact that the program ran out of money shows that there are more prisoners in county jails than they thought,” Jungel said.
Jungel estimated the state owes counties between $14 million and $16 million since the funding freeze began.
“It’s like renegotiating a car payment or a hotel bill,” Jungel said. “This is not an entitlement. Counties have spent money housing people that are the state’s responsibility.”
Russ Marlan, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, said the reimbursement money ran out about halfway through the year because sheriffs asked for their reimbursement money upfront.
Marlan said a proposal was presented last year to pay more per day for the prisoners who would have been more likely to go to prison, but the sheriffs’ association opposed it.
In Gladwin County, Eastman said the program netted the jail $3,000 to $8,000 a month, depending on the number of eligible prisoners. The jail typically houses one to eight state prisoners at time, he said.
“It was a pretty good source of revenue for the county,” Eastman said. “It’s hard to see it chopped like that.”
Cutting costs hampers the smooth running of any facility, Eastman said.
Eastman said he believes other counties are feeling the same effects.
Proos said many county jails are overcrowded, a situation worsened by state prisoners. At the same time, he said, some counties rely heavily on reimbursement because they have the room.
Proos said he tried to mount an effort to override the governor’s veto and has encouraged sheriffs to raise awareness of the looming problem for counties.
Proos also said the veto raises questions about why it’s so expensive to keep inmates in state prisons.
“Michigan is higher on per-prisoner costs than many other states,” Proos said. “We’re trying to unroll the budget to see where all those costs come from. It’s generally accepted that 85 to 86 percent of prisoner expenditures are due to personnel costs.”
One solution, Jungel said, is privatizing some services, that’s proven more cost-effective than the way prisons are currently run, he said.
“Oakland County bid their kitchen services to the lowest bidder and saved $6 million a year,” Jungel said.
As county jails await the return of state reimbursement, Eastman said it’s only a matter of time before the Gladwin County Jail cuts programs due to the funding loss.
Eastman said the jail seeks reimbursement from inmates for their incarceration and medical expenses when possible, but tries not to set rates too high due to the poor economy.
“With that amount of money not coming in for a long time when it had been before, we may have to set rates for inmate reimbursement at a local level higher or look at other ways to cut costs, all of which is labor-intensive,” Eastman said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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