Jail overcrowding could see more inmates with reduced sentences

Published 9:12 am Wednesday, August 19, 2009

By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star

On any given day, those convicted of various crimes, ordered to serve out their sentence at Berrien County Jail, could see that time reduced. An end to their jail sentence, all due to the fact that there’s simply not enough room in which to keep them.

The fact is, Berrien County Jail is overcrowded.

“We’ve been the overcrowding problem since before I got here,” said Sheriff Paul Bailey on Tuesday. “It’s nothing new.”

It may not be a new development in regards to the county jail. But it is an ongoing one. One, said  Bailey that needs a plan for the future.

In a report presented to county commissioners earlier this month, evidence of overcrowding continues to be testament to the fact that Berrien County’s jail is not suitable for the population of those in need of such incarceration.

The report stated that during the month of July instances of overcrowding resulted in the suspended sentences by Chief Judge Al Butzbaugh of 64 individuals over the course of three days.

A total of 178 individuals were released from jail during that time.

“It’s not because the crime rate has increased so much in Berrien County,” Bailey explained.

Old statutes used to drag out the process of relieving the issue of overcrowding at the jail, the process taking up to 24 days before officials could authorize the suspension of sentences and release of inmates.

New statutes have allowed a process to be developed through the department of corrections, the sheriff’s department and the chief judge – allowing for a quicker turn around when the jail fills up.

The fact that the facility is entirely too small for the population of Berrien County, Bailey said, is the main problem.

His recommendation, he said, “is that Berrien County needs a facility that can house 500 people.”¬† Right now, the jail holds just a bit over 300. The cost of a new facility, Bailey estimated could come in around $43 million.

Overcrowding meetings are being held every three months, Bailey said, to develop a plan for the future.
Timing is imperative, according to Bailey. Though the current economy presents a challenge to any further developments, having a plan going forward is what he said is needed most.

“I just don’t see where it’s feasible right now in this economy to build a new jail,” he said.
But, he continued, “we’re at that time frame again where we have to plan for the future.”
The current jail is also outdated, operating on old technology and an old set up. Through more recent design, jails that operate with a “pod” style holding cell make for better surveillance.

The way the Berrien County Jail is laid out now, means that more guards are needed to keep it under watch.

Though the fact that sentences are being suspended to deal with the issue of overcrowding, giving some of those convicted of crimes a chance to reenter society early may sound alarming, Bailey tried to secure any fears by assuring that those inmates which judges including Judge Butzbaugh choose to allow an early release are carefully reviewed.

“We’re not releasing anyone, that (Butzbaugh) feels is a harm to society or (would) cause a risk,” he said.

That means no one convicted of domestic abuse crimes, assault crimes or major crimes.
Still, Bailey conceded the issue is a growing problem. And he assured that the discussions to resolve the issue of overcrowding are ongoing.