For more than a decade, various county boards have debated expanding or renovating the Muskegon County jail while conditions have worsened and sentencing and treatment options slowly have been diminished by overcrowding. Although many MLive and Muskegon Chronicle readers and citizens attending meetings about the jail believe releasing those who have low-level drug offenses or property crimes would correct the overcrowding issue, that's not supported by the facts.
A series, "The jail dilemma," investigated by MLive and Muskegon Chronicle reporter Eric Gaertner earlier this year, found the jail severely overcrowded with inmates being released early every day. During his research, Gaertner sent a Freedom of Information request to the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office for a list of inmates and their crimes on three random dates. What he learned is the people lodged in the jail are there for serious crimes, or, they have flouted the system for so long by failing to appear in court or to finish court ordered programs or probation that they can no longer be ignored.
Consultants hired by Muskegon County to study the jail confirmed what Gaertner found. Major and violent crimes are increasing in this county, changing the jail population. Seventy-six percent of the inmates are felons. In addition, 28 percent of the inmates are women, which is well above the national average and creates additional issues.
Delaying a decision on the jail will not change these facts. On Thursday, the county jail and juvenile center committee planned to review financing options for renovating and expanding the county jail and replacing the juvenile facility. After reviewing 88 different options, consultants recommended renovating and expanding the current jail on county-owned property in and around the Hall of Justice in Muskegon. They also recommended moving the Juvenile Transition Center to a renovated and expanded Craig School building at the corner of Southern Avenue and Park Street.
Many MLive and Chronicle readers have indicated they want the county board to put the decision on the jail to a vote in the form of a millage request to fund the jail renovations. They believe county residents will reject the proposal. Some of these people are the same ones who think we should lock up and throw away the key for nearly every arrested individual.
They can't have it both ways. Either the county renovates and expands the jail so that judges can put some muscle behind alternative programs - you will end up in jail if you don't comply with these rules - or we complain about the growing amount of crime in our communities.
The jail and juvenile justice center can be a place where the community reclaims individuals who have made serious mistakes. There are crimes that don't deserve incarceration. But the decision about how these individuals are treated shouldn't be forced by a lack of space in the jail and a juvenile center designed for punishment instead of treatment and rehabilitation.
Technology has changed how jails operate. Using new technology, the county and sheriff's office might be able to cut costs to help fund the new construction as well as move the jail into the 21st century.
Of course, county officials should closely scrutinize the consultant's proposal. Is this the best way to expand and renovate these facilities? Or, is this recommendation appealing because we've always done it this way? They need to listen to neighbors' concerns about the new juvenile facility and protect their property values.
But, the county board also needs to take action. The current jail is outdated and unsafe - for inmates, jail staff, visitors and anyone else who enters the building. Inmates often are released before they finish treatment programs started while in jail or their sentences are complete. Many flout the system because they know they won't be sent to jail even if they do ignore guidelines. Don't let this end up on the shelf.