Mich. count sheriff needs $500K for 8 correctional officers
Midland County Sheriff Scott Stephenson is concerned for the safety of his staff and inmates
By John Kennett
Midland Daily News
MIDLAND, Mich. — Midland County Sheriff Scott Stephenson appeared before the Midland County Executive Committee on Tuesday to request hiring an additional eight corrections officers.
“I’m extremely concerned for the security and safety of not only our deputies that work there, but the inmates, the kitchen workers, the teachers, the medical staff including counselors, attorneys, probation officers, parole officers, volunteers and clergy,” Stephenson said.
The proposal would cost the county $500,000. Stephenson told the board county is not in compliance with the Administrative Rules for Jails and Lockups in the state of Michigan, which states that, “At least one corrections officer shall be provided for each floor or security area that is occupied.”
“These administrative rules were developed in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Corrections as well as the Michigan Sheriff’s Association and passed by the Michigan legislature. They are not suggestions. They are mandated. They carry the validity of the law and I am required to follow them,” Stephenson said.
Before the new jail was opened in 2010, the county obtained six different staffing analyses for the jail that ranged from the need for 32.5 (full-time equivalent) and 10 (part-time equivalent) to 46.3 FTE. The last of those studies was done in 2009 before the jail opened as a 250-bed facility. In 2012, the jail increased to a 274-bed facility. Presently, the county has 28 FTE and six PTE at the jail.
“As the sheriff it is one of my responsibilities to run a safe and secure jail,” Stephenson said. “The staff analysis is one reason that I believe we are at a dangerous position as it pertains to safety and liability at the county jail.”
Another concern was a best practice review that was conducted this past May with the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority.
“After (the review), I received a letter that recommended we increase staffing levels to minimize our exposure to high liability incidents such as assaults on correctional staff, excessive force claims, inmate suicide or escapes,” Stephenson said.
“In good faith and in good conscience, I can’t sit here on all this information I have and do nothing,” Stephenson said. “If I show deliberate indifference I am being very irresponsible as a sheriff and I’m putting us in a terrible liability situation.”
Commissioner Rich Keenan, R-4th District, exhorted fellow commissioners to at least approve the minimum staffing. He added that if the county became overstaffed, it could always lay off people.
“We don’t want to end up with an incident due to understaffing because we are sitting on our hands and we’re taking money and we’re spending it on other things than staffing for the jail that is required,” he said.
Speaking in support of additional staffing were Stephenson’s two predecessors, former sheriffs John Reder and Jerry Nielsen.
Nielsen served as sheriff from 2005-2012 and was the sheriff in office during the planning and construction of the new jail.
“The staffing level has been low since we moved in. If you have a breach of that facility, some of the people that are there, you don’t really want running around this community,” Nielsen said of inmates from Genesee County as well as federal inmates brought in by federal marshals.
Since opening, the income from those inmates has exceeded proposed revenue. Nielsen said from 2010 through 2014 additional revenue has been $1.7 million.
Commissioner Mark Bone, R-2nd District, suggested spending about $4,000 for a study and receive a professional opinion on how many officers are needed.
“The reason I picked eight (corrections officers) is because it will meet the least of all the staffing analysis done,” Stephenson said. “I believe that this number puts us in compliance with the Administrative Rules and will satisfy our risk management provider and greatly reduce the county’s liability. We’ve already done six analyses. This is something that needs to be addressed very quickly.”
Commissioner Scott Noesen, R-7th District, inquired into the consequences of not meeting the DOC guidelines.
“If the state of Michigan came in and said, ‘You’re not compliant,’ I would imagine they would say you have X amount of time to become compliant. If not, they can levy costs against the county. If you still don’t (comply) the DOC can file a writ with the attorney general’s office. The attorney general can ask you to be compliant or shut down the jail.”
Commissioner Jim Leigeb, R-3rd District, asked if there might be some compromise of four or possibly two additional corrections officers.
“There is not a lot of wiggle room as far as that goes,” Stephenson said. “I’ll take them, but if I can’t meet those Administrative Rules, we have to start looking at the population of the jail. We’re here to solve the problem. If I was a defense attorney looking to sue the Midland County Jail, they would have a lot of ammunition,” Stephenson said.
Another possibility suggested would be to close part of the jail. After the meeting, Stephenson said he did not believe that would be a cost savings for the county.
Noesen suggested that if the county had a long-term strategy in place to achieve proper staffing levels, that would help minimize the risk.
County Attorney L. William Smith agreed, “I think Commissioner Noesen’s comment concerning the county’s coming up with a plan to achieve an acceptable solution is a pretty good one. The sheriff has indicated he wants to follow the state’s guidelines and he has a number he seems to have attached to that. But, that may not be something the county can easily afford to do immediately.”
What would be the consequences if the county hired the additional eight corrections officers? County Administrator/Controller Bridgette Gransden said there are two options.
“You can lay other people off because $500,000 is not money that I am going to be able to find anywhere else. Or, you can increase the use of the surplus. This is an operating cost, not a one time outlay of money, which means that you are going to have to assume that you will have to use surplus to balance the budget every year and that will eventually deplete reserves.”
No action was taken Tuesday. Commissioners are scheduled to adopt the 2016 budget at their Nov. 3 meeting.