Barry Co. jail overcrowding sparks emergency declaration

Barry County

HASTINGS, Mich. (WOOD) — A few inmates of the Barry County Jail are going to be able to spend Thanksgiving at home because of inmate overcrowding.

While the inmates may be thankful, Sheriff Dar Leaf says it’s a problem that could impact public safety.

Inmates there are sleeping on the floor because there just aren’t enough beds available and it got so bad, the county had to declare a state of emergency.

“This is definitely a public safety issue,” Leaf said.

It is an issue that Leaf has had to struggle with for years but now it is coming to a head.

“The maximum amount of beds we have is 98, when we reach 85 percent which is right around 93, and we’re there for five days in a row, we have to declare a state of emergency,” Leaf said.

A state of emergency means the population has to be reduced.

“We were up over five days we were up over 93 inmates in our jail and our last three days we were up over 100,” Leaf said. “We can only house 13 females, and at the beginning of today we had 22.”

In fact, some days the total population went to 107 and 108.

Overcrowding means a threat to the safety of corrections officers when it comes to controlling the inmates and the spread of infectious diseases where the county has to foot the bill for health care in a hospital.

>>PDF: Michigan guidelines for county jail overcrowding states of emergency

Good news for some inmates.

“We managed to whittle it down, we had 16 we were able to release today,” Leaf said Friday.”Yeah, you probably passed them on the way walking back out the door if they were grinning from ear-to-ear that was them.”

But they do not just throw the doors open, the sheriff meets with two judges, the prosecutor and staff to determine who goes, and there is also state legislation.

“The law says is if they’ve done 85 percent of their sentence and they’re not a violent person, they’re not… there’s many drug offenses that are on that list, if they don’t fall in that criteria then we can release them,” Leaf said

Most released were convicted of methamphetamine use or possession who were going through treatment programs and a few were convicted of embezzlement. County jail inmates are convicted of misdemeanors and spend a maximum of one year behind bars.

Some released Friday had only one day left on their sentence, some had a week, a small number had as much as 30 to 50 days left.

Leaf says marijuana crimes alone are not a big problem in Barry County, it is mostly meth or opiates, so the new legalization will not help much.

The only solution: a new jail to replace the 50-year-old structure originally built as a holding facility.

“It’s not a cheap thing to do, you’re talking $16 million, maybe,” Leaf said.

Ben Geiger, chair of the Barry County Board of Commissions, says the commission is aware of the problem and he said plans are in the works.

“The Berry County Jail is a rickety, ramshackle old building that should have been replaced decades ago,” Geiger said.

Geiger said not long after the new year, the commission will be meeting with the public to determine what and where the new jail should be and how an estimated cost of between $13 and $25 million to rebuild should be funded.

“This is a county government with a budget of $16 million, so this is a very expensive proposition that we’re probably gonna have to go to the voters for a millage,” Geiger said.

He said the process will be like when school districts plan a new school with community input and a lot of meetings open to the public.

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