SHERIFF: Closing of county RRP facility is unfortunate

On Oct. 9, the Lake County Board of Commissioners voted to close the Lake County Residential Re-Entry Program facility (LCRRP, formerly known as the TRV), and end our relationship with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). We have had a long-standing partnership with the MDOC to provide correctional officers to supervise parole violators.

We re-negotiated the RRP contract with the MDOC within months of me coming into office in 2017. At the time, that contract was set to expire Sept. 30, 2017. We were immediately met with several negative issues brought to us by MDOC and our staff. Some of the more key issues were, a run-down building, leaking roof, mold, low county staffing levels, no air conditioning and unsatisfactory (county-provided) inmate medical care. In spite of these issues, a new contract was negotiated with a higher per diem rate increase than ever before negotiated. Aside from the mentioned issues, the MDOC was satisfied with our long-standing partnership and sought to continue that partnership. The “past” contract with MDOC was for a period of 10 years, which the “new” contract would be reduced to a period of three years.

We hoped that with the new per diem rate we could begin to decrease fund balance usage, make crucial repairs to the facility and make sure our staffing was at a safe level for the safety of our officers, the public and the inmates at the RRP. The first few months of that new contract showed that we may, in time, be able to do just that. When the program started in the early '90s, the per diem for male inmates was at $30 per day. The current contract rate is $46.25 per day — an increase of $16.25 in just under 30 years. This is much lower than the rate of inflation. However, our operating expenses have increased at a much higher rate.

Lake County Administrator Tobi Lake continually reminded the board and the sheriff’s office that there had been an increasing dependence on fund balance usage for the last several years. This warning did not fall on deaf ears. We were trying to make the necessary changes at the RRP and work toward the goal of less reliance on fund balance.

The use of fund balance at the RRP did not begin with my administration. It had been going on for at least a couple fiscal years, since 2014, which was prior to me taking office.

The RRP building is 40 years old. Much of the building is in original condition; boiler heating system, electrical system, no air conditioning, roof (repaired over and over again) and a generator back-up electrical system that failed us when we needed it most during the tornado aftermath of 2018. Currently, the county owes approximately $3.6 million on the facility itself. Also, the bonds for the courthouse expansion and the facility itself were taken out of the active proceeds from the RRP revenue stream, which adds to the large fiscal challenge needed to keep the facility in operation.

In June 2018 (about eight months into the contract), we began to question MDOC regarding a decrease in the number of offenders sent to the RRP. We were assured that this decrease was normal and the population was cyclic like this at times, especially during the summer, when parole agents around the state are on vacation.

By fall 2018, we began to sound the alarm to county and state officials that we were losing inmates at the RRP. At the time, we still had a total population of 175, which was down from a once “normal” of 250.

We sought help from our state representative and state senator. We even reached out to the governor’s staff as well as other political groups in hopes of assistance on reaching the right people on our current situation.

In February 2019, MDOC uniformed officers at the RRP were transferred to other facilities in the state. These uniformed officers were the on-site transport officers who brought inmates to the facility from around the state. We began to schedule regular meetings with the county administrator and some county board members, which I would refer to as an “ad hoc” committee. The population numbers at the RRP have been declining drastically ever since then.

In spite of every effort and numerous meetings with MDOC, we were given the following reasons for the declining prisoner numbers:

• Offender Success programs implemented by the MDOC across the state have been successful. Very simply, prisoner numbers are at an all-time low.

• MDOC has shut down some of their own prisons. Most recently, they closed the Detroit Re-Entry Center, which was the sister facility to our RRP facility. This facility was in the same situation with one entire wing of that facility empty and declining prisoner numbers.

• The economy could even factor into it. There are fewer parole violators due to economic growth — they have jobs.

In May and June 2019, MDOC began to make a concerted effort to bring our prisoner numbers back up as much as possible. Together, we created new inmate programs to make the facility more attractive to the parole specialists around the state. Parole specialists are the people who make the final decision on what to do with parole violators. By spring 2019, we were in constant talks with MDOC and our state representative to get the numbers up as high as possible. By mid-summer 2019, we began to believe we had “bottomed out” with the population numbers and were now at a “new normal” of prisoner population.

Administrator Lake and my staff worked to set up a 2020 budget for the RRP that would be sustainable based on those lower prisoner numbers. We thought at that point, we could weather the storm, keep as many jobs as possible and maintain for another fiscal year. Currently, it costs around $315,000 monthly to operate the RRP (wages, expenses, utilities, bond payments, etc.). With the current low volume count, we are bringing in around $40,000. You can clearly see the deficit.

In August 2019, we received notification from MDOC that they were implementing a new program for parole violators, "Swift and Sure" parole violation process. This process calls for parole agents and parole specialists to react faster to known parole violations, to implement shorter jail stays and to implement known sanctions for each parole violation. Swift and Sure now took us from a 90-to-120-day facility to a 40-day maximum stay for prisoners.

We were told that the “re-entry program” model of the past was not successful and that the new Swift and Sure process was evidence-based and had already been successful in Michigan for felony probation Violators. The Swift and Sure model was developed in Hawaii and several states now use it.

We were told that the Michigan Parole Board voted to implement the Swift and Sure program to parolees and that the process would begin within 30 days. We were also told that we could now expect our population to immediately decrease from 30 to 50 percent.

We were repeatedly assured that we weren’t being “shut down” and that this was another major program change. We were told again that our numbers should stabilize within the next several months to a “new normal” for LCRRP. The rug was yanked from under our feet.

Recent events at the LCRRP were not due to any dissatisfaction with the sheriff’s office or the staff. To the contrary, we continually get kudos from MDOC on our long-standing partnership and the performance of our staff. During a recent conversation with the senior MDOC project manager, he clearly stated it has nothing to do with the housing price or any other reason. He stated the state is falling in-line with what the rest of the country is already doing when dealing with parole violators. The local supervisor from MDOC also stated she could not ask for a better relationship with MDOC and LCSO.

Others options were pursued, such as federal contracts, which we later found out that we could not enter into contract with the feds due to the "tax-free" designation of the bonds.

Unfortunately, this comes with a price — the losing of jobs that this county needs, correctional officers who have spent many dedicated years to LCSO, who are now are at a loss. I want to thank each and every officer for their service to the county and to LCSO.