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Crisis in Reverse: Counties Struggle with Dwindling Jail Populations

Morgan County, Missouri was in dire financial straits before contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house immigration detainees at the county’s jail. For a while things were great – Sheriff Jim Petty replaced his worn-out police cruisers with new SUVs, upgraded the local jail and hired more deputies with funds received under the ICE contract.

Ten years ago Morgan County was having budget problems. “We needed a way to generate income,” said Petty. That’s when the county went into the ICE detainee lock-up business. “It wasn’t hitting the jackpot ... but [the contract has] given us a little freedom to operate the way we ought to be,” he stated.

ICE paid the county $65 per day per prisoner, as opposed to the $45 per day paid by surrounding counties. However, with the contract came obligations. For example, ICE required upgrades such as a recreation area, a dietician and a full-time nurse. Further, the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand its jail by 130 new beds.

The facility averaged 45 ICE detainees a day in 2008 and netted $1.1 million in profit. But things have since changed. The detainee population has dropped to an average of 27 per day, and the county is looking at fiscal cutbacks.

“It’s a concern,” said Sheriff Petty. “We’re going to struggle to make ends meet.”

Lincoln County, Missouri was also left out in the cold by ICE. For years, the county contracted to fill 60 percent of its jail with immigration detainees, which covered half of its law enforcement budget. The jail has averaged 30 to 40 detainees a day over the last six years, but it’s now been months since the county has housed a single ICE prisoner.

“We do miss them,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Andy Binder. “In this economy, it’s not easy to find $150,000 lying around in a small county. It hurts.”

Hubbard County, Minnesota is struggling with a shortage of prisoners, too. When county officials built a state-of-the-art jail in Park Rapids, they hoped to attract contracts from overcrowded jails in neighboring counties. The 116-bed facility currently holds only 34 prisoners. The county jail population has dropped 3.5 percent statewide, according to statistics released by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

“When you have a bad economy, statistically speaking, crime trends tend to go up,” said Jim Franklin, director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association. “What we don’t know is that this appears to be almost the opposite for the moment. ... It’s kind of an unusual circumstance that we find ourselves looking at at the moment.”

A dearth of ICE detainees is also causing problems in Hernando County, Florida, where Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) operates the county’s jail. As of October 2009 the facility stopped housing ICE detainees, which led to a 25 percent reduction in the jail’s population. “While CCA has made every effort to return the detainees to the facility, it does not appear that they will be returning in the near future,” CCA employee Natasha Metcalf wrote in a March 2, 2010 memo to county officials.

Unable to generate sufficient profit without the ICE detainees, CCA faces the loss of its contract to run the facility. The company is looking elsewhere for replacement prisoners.

Back in Missouri, Platte County and McHenry County have seen drops in their average jail populations. But due to their proximity to larger metropolitan areas, they are not experiencing any adverse effects. “I don’t think we’re worried we’re going to go out of business,” said Patrick Firman, a McHenry County chief deputy.

The jails in Mississippi County and Christian County, Missouri are still filled to overflowing thanks to ICE contracts, but officials are keeping a close eye on the situation. “So far, we haven’t seen a negative impact. That isn’t to say we won’t see one,” noted Junior DeLay, clerk of Mississippi County.

Which leads one to wonder: what does it say about a society that’s worried when it doesn’t have enough people to fill its jails?

Sources: Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, TIME Magazine, Hernando Today

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