Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Counties, state battle over inmate funding

By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Northeastern Michigan jails are struggling to deal with Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s veto of money to reimburse county jails for prisoners, but more funding may be on its way soon.

The reimbursement program allows some felons who would be otherwise housed in state prisons to serve their sentences in county jails.

“Housing prisoners in county jails is one third of the cost to keep them in Michigan prisons,” said Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, vice-chair of the House Corrections Appropriations Subcommittee.

Proos said the governor vetoed funding for the program, which was allotted $16.4 million, to help balance the budget.

“It’s shifted the burden to the counties,” Proos said.

Megan Brown, Granholm’s deputy press secretary, said funding was cut because it would have continued to reimburse counties for some offenders who may not have ended up in state prison.

However, Brown said Granholm supports the program and is looking to reinstate it. The governor has asked the Legislature to restore $7.5 million for the remainder of this fiscal year, Brown said.

In addition, Brown said Granholm is recommending restoring full support for 2011.

Justin Eastman, jail administrator for Gladwin County, said the loss of program funding has been felt “quite detrimentally.”

“It was a major source of ways to curb the cost of running a county jail,” Eastman said. “Without it, it’s definitely felt.”

Under the program, county jails were paid $43.50 per day for each eligible prisoner who qualified for reimbursement, contrasted with the $68 to $80 per day required to house someone in state prison.

But because of the veto, state prisoners are still in county jails while the state saves both amounts.

“They’re stiffing us,” said Terry Jungel said, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Jungel said he does not know how many state prisoners are housed in county jails, but added that the program was more successful than the governor originally expected.

“The mere fact that the program ran out of money shows that there are more prisoners in county jails than they thought,” Jungel said.

Jungel estimated the state owes counties between $14 million and $16 million since the funding freeze began.

“It’s like renegotiating a car payment or a hotel bill,” Jungel said. “This is not an entitlement. Counties have spent money housing people that are the state’s responsibility.”

Russ Marlan, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, said the reimbursement money ran out about halfway through the year because sheriffs asked for their reimbursement money upfront.

Marlan said a proposal was presented last year to pay more per day for the prisoners who would have been more likely to go to prison, but the sheriffs’ association opposed it.

In Gladwin County, Eastman said the program netted the jail $3,000 to $8,000 a month, depending on the number of eligible prisoners. The jail typically houses one to eight state prisoners at time, he said.

“It was a pretty good source of revenue for the county,” Eastman said. “It’s hard to see it chopped like that.”

Cutting costs hampers the smooth running of any facility, Eastman said.

Eastman said he believes other counties are feeling the same effects.

Proos said many county jails are overcrowded, a situation worsened by state prisoners. At the same time, he said, some counties rely heavily on reimbursement because they have the room.

Proos said he tried to mount an effort to override the governor’s veto and has encouraged sheriffs to raise awareness of the looming problem for counties.

Proos also said the veto raises questions about why it’s so expensive to keep inmates in state prisons.

“Michigan is higher on per-prisoner costs than many other states,” Proos said. “We’re trying to unroll the budget to see where all those costs come from. It’s generally accepted that 85 to 86 percent of prisoner expenditures are due to personnel costs.”

One solution, Jungel said, is privatizing some services, that’s proven more cost-effective than the way prisons are currently run, he said.

“Oakland County bid their kitchen services to the lowest bidder and saved $6 million a year,” Jungel said.

As county jails await the return of state reimbursement, Eastman said it’s only a matter of time before the Gladwin County Jail cuts programs due to the funding loss.

Eastman said the jail seeks reimbursement from inmates for their incarceration and medical expenses when possible, but tries not to set rates too high due to the poor economy.

“With that amount of money not coming in for a long time when it had been before, we may have to set rates for inmate reimbursement at a local level higher or look at other ways to cut costs, all of which is labor-intensive,” Eastman said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Industry groups want federal chemical laws rewritten

BY JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service

LANSING- A new state coalition is pushing for changes to federal chemical laws that have been in place since the 1970s, citing both environmental concerns and economic impact.

The Michigan Coalition for Chemical Safety includes groups involved in the production and use of chemicals. Those chemicals are used to make products ranging from batteries to fertilizer.

The coalition wants Congress to change current laws regarding the control of toxic substances and give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clearer definitions of what chemicals are legal and more capacity to enforce its rules.

Its goal is to create a uniform national law regarding chemicals, both to promote safer chemical policy and to streamline business practices, according to Stephen Rapundalo, president of MichBio, a bioscience industry trade association based in Ann Arbor.

Other coalition members include the Michigan Manufacturers Association, Michigan Agri-Business Association and Michigan Allied Poultry Industries.

“There’s many chemicals out there that haven’t been characterized for their safety features or toxicity,” Rapundalo said. “There needs to be standards that are put in place that are uniform, across the board, and that everyone can follow. That way you can compare one product side by side to a competitor’s product.”

He referred to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which outlines how the EPA can regulate substances such as asbestos, radon and lead-based paints.

Rapundalo said current laws don’t afford the EPA enough authority. “The problem right now is that the EPA does not have as much regulatory enforcement capability as one might imagine.”

“For example, the EPA cannot regulate asbestos the way the Food and Drug Administration can regulate drugs and tobacco. Yet asbestos has killed many people and has many hazards in terms of safety,” he said.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson released proposed guidelines in September for strengthening the federal agency’s management of chemicals. The guidelines would authorize the EPA to determine the dangers of chemicals, require companies to provide the agency necessary information to make such determinations and encourage more green chemistry jobs.

Mike Shriberg, policy director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, said that the coalition’s interest in updating the law represents a turnaround for the chemical industry.

“I guess it’s good that the business interests have decided that the law they’ve defended for over 30 years actually isn’t working to protect Americans from toxic chemicals,” Shriberg said. “That’s a really positive step.

“However,” he said, “it’s a little disingenuous that they try and frame the national coalition as a nonprofit social welfare organization. If you look at who it is, it’s the chemical industry and related interests. If they are a coalition of the chemical industry, they should be clear that’s who they’re representing.”

The Michigan organization is affiliated with the National Coalition for Chemical Safety in Washington, D.C.

Rapundalo said a revised national law could streamline the regulation process for many companies operating in multiple states.

“Since there’s no uniform federal laws, the various states have gone about doing their own thing, so there’s this patchwork in each state,” Rapundalo said.

That means that a company could have to spend more to comply with multiple state regulations instead of a single national regulation.

Rep. Jeff Mayes, D-Bay City, is a member of the Michigan coalition. He said that states with different environmental standards can make it difficult to market new products across the country.

Mayes noted that his district includes “companies like Dow Chemical, that are making major investments in battery technology. Batteries are simply a plastic container loaded with chemicals for the purpose of making electricity,” Mayes said.

“If every state had different standards on how those batteries function, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “If we’re serious about making, promoting and selling the electric vehicle, having these standards in different states could be a barrier to its actual deployment.”

The Ecology Center’s Shriberg expressed concern about counting on new federal regulations, especially any time soon.

“Each state is unique in its ecological vulnerability. Each state is unique in the people that they have, the human populations there,” Shriberg said. “Waiting for Congress to act is a flawed strategy for any state.

“There’s no question that we need congressional action, but the wheels of Congress turn slowly, whereas states have been the ones that are actually developing the reforms of chemical policy we need to move forward,” he said.

Even so, Shriberg said that economic growth can go hand in hand with responsible environmental goals.

“We believe, as I think this coalition believes, that green chemistry and the use of safer alternatives hold huge economic development potential,” Shriberg said. “To get there you need a very strong and clear federal law, and a set of state laws that gets rid of some of the worst chemicals on the market and requires that chemicals are proven safe before they’re put on the market.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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More volunteers trained to help crime victims

By CHENQI GUO
Capital News Service

LANSING— More than 1,000 volunteers statewide are working to provide services to crime and accident victims through a Michigan Sheriffs’ Association training program.

They visit victims’ families with police officers, tell people of the death of their loved ones, stay with them and comfort them.

“We call a pastor, inform their family members and help notify them of their rights. We don’t let them fear or grieve alone,” said Kam Bradman, the association’s victim services unit trainer.

“We had a 20-hour training program recently in Berrien County on helping victims of suicide, crime and accidents. We also trained volunteers on cultural diversity, which is very important when comforting people with religious beliefs,” said Terrence Jungel, executive director of the association.

For example, James Linderman, the prosecuting attorney of Emmet County, said, “In a recent shooting in Emmet County, the advocates were activated in comforting the victim’s family.”

Volunteer advocates are available 24 hours per day and are unpaid.

Two advocates respond to any request for assistance once they are called by police officers at the incident scene. They comfort victims and educate them about their rights.

Bradman said, “Over half of the counties in Michigan have victim advocate teams running right now.”

The association has been developing the program for more than 20 years. Eight more counties were added in 2009 and 10 additional ones are joining in this year. The first training session for the newest participants will take place in March in Menominee County.

Bradman said, “Everybody responds to trauma in different ways, and we are trained to identify and process their responses. It’s really hard to inform people of the death of their loved ones.

“The biggest difficulty is to recognize a devastated emotional condition and handle it professionally. We shouldn’t let the situation overwhelm us,” he said.

Victim advocates also are in touch with victims of domestic violence and help provide them with shelter and survivor networks.

Bradman said, “It’s really important to allow ordinary citizens work as volunteers to assist state and township police. There has to be a way victims have their needs met.”

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider said that the sheriffs’ association program is similar to, but not the same as, the victim-witness program offered by county prosecutor offices and that pays more attention to protecting victims’ safety.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Snowmobiles have allure for teens but safety is a must

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING — Alex Sapp was only 14 when he died in a snowmobiling accident in Ogemaw County in December.

He and a 15-year-old friend were speeding at night on frozen Grebe Lake when their snowmobile struck a dock and overturned onto Sapp, who was driving.

Both teens were wearing helmets and Sapp’s passenger survived, according to a report from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

Sapp was among 14 fatal snowmobiling accidents in Michigan between Dec. 11, 2009 and Feb. 5, 2010, according to the DNRE report.

Snowmobiling fatalities and serious accidents occur regularly, but they’re especially tragic when teens are the victims.

Michigan regulations require operators between 12 and 17 to obtain a snowmobile safety certificate unless they’re directly supervised by someone 21 or older, according to Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association in Grand Rapids.

Regardless of supervision, operators between those ages still must have the certificate before crossing streets or highways.

Manson said that the rules are well followed because parents push for safety.

“We’re seeing more and more families out snowmobiling,” he said. “Once your kid gets to a certain age, they’re not having fun riding double with you, and neither are you. Parents want their kids to get a certificate just to ride a snowmobile, period.”

Teens can get a certificate when they pass a safety class taught by instructors who are certified by the DNRE.

John Oliver teaches such a class in Gogebic County with his wife, Alison. With a permanent residence in Illinois, the couple has a vacation home in Watersmeet where they volunteer to teach snowmobiling safety.

“This is our outreach and support for the community, to be able to add value to the community,” he said. “We’ve been certified in Illinois and are working on our Michigan and Wisconsin certifications.”

Oliver said that snowmobiling gives younger teenagers a sense of freedom before they can legally drive a car.

“It’s the excitement about the ability to operate a motorized vehicle and be out in nature,” he said. “You have the aspect of having a destination. The allure to the sport is the bonding, the friendship.”

Oliver said that the eight-hour classes designed for teenagers cover a broad variety of topics that are important for safe operation of a snowmobile.

“We walk them through the machine aspect of it so they understand the parts of the snowmobile,” he said. “We talk about the safety aspects and maintenance aspects of the snowmobile. In addition, we’ll cover things like the history of snowmobiling, the laws of snowmobiling and the impact of it on the environment.”

The class also covers personal safety, hypothermia and how to safely ride in conditions like white-outs and ice.

Oliver said that rules for teenagers are fairly uniform throughout the Midwest, but Michigan has a stricter age limit.

“To be able to operate a snowmobile by yourself in Michigan, you have to be 12 years old,” he said. “It’s also 12 in Illinois, but you can be 10 and take the class and operate it if you have an adult or guardian on the snowmobile with you.”

Both Oliver and Manson said that speed and alcohol are the biggest contributors to snowmobiling fatalities. Teenagers in particular are warned about these risks.

“We have a zero-tolerance campaign,” Manson said. “Alcohol and snowmobiling don’t mix.

“We lobbied the Legislature to enforce some tough new drunk driving rules,” he said. “We’ve legislated and regulated as much as we can. Right now if you get caught drunk driving on a snowmobile, you get the same thing as a car. It comes down to education.”

Manson said that public attitudes about snowmobiling for teenagers are different in the Upper Peninsula than downstate.

“You do have that ability in a lot of the areas in the U.P. to ride snowmobiles to school,” he said. “They were given a responsibility. They were given a chance to do that and it’s how they were brought up. Down in the Lower Peninsula, there’s not too many schools that have trails.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Lawmakers debate bringing good time back for prisoners

By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – In an effort to reduce the prison population, the Legislature is considering a proposal to reinstate good time credit for inmates who behave well.

In late February, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to hold hearings about good time credits, as proposed in a bill by Rep. George Cushingberry Jr., D-Detroit.
The committee will also debate a proposal by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to close four or five prisons by October.

Cushingberry’s legislation would make some prisoners eligible for early release if they exhibit good behavior.

The program would cut minimum sentences by a fixed number of days for every month a prisoner goes without a major misconduct charge.  The Department of Corrections estimates that the change could reduce the prison population of approximately 43,000 by about 7,550 and save the department about $107 million annually.

In 1987, good time was replaced by a disciplinary credit system that automatically put prisoners on  track towards early release unless they misbehaved.

Advocates argue that restoring the good time policy would free up space in prisons and saves the state money.

Critics, however, counter that it would  create a safety risk for the public

Ionia County Circuit judge David Hoort said that while public safety is a legitimate concern, good time could be beneficial if it were implemented properly.

Hoort said the program must distinguish among different types of crime to minimize chances for violent criminals and sex offenders to get out early.

Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola said that good time poses too great a safety risk.

“Giving our victims some assurances of safety while an individual that victimized them is incarcerated is really important to our society and to the state of Michigan,” Spaniola said.

He also said that the state should be cautious about how it cuts the Corrections Department budget.

“I would almost equate spending for Corrections to be the same for spending for national defense in time of conflict,”  Spaniola said.

Public safety should be the state’s number-one priority and good time threatens that priority, said Terrence Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Jungel also expressed concern that the state is letting economics dictate corrections policy and said it should explore other alternatives, such as privatization of prison services, to save money.

Spaniola  said good time didn’t work when Michigan had the system before.and that many prisoners did not serve their minimum sentence and even fewer served their maximum.

In 1998, the disciplinary credit system was replaced with truth-in-sentencing, which requires prisoners to serve their entire minimum sentence.

Hoort said the Legislature changed the system because it was being abused and inmates were released early without proper consideration of the consequences.

“We have to make sure that it is what it is.  If it’s used to get people out of prison, that’s obviously counterproductive,” said Hoort.

He said good time should be geared towards prisoners who would benefit from less time in prison and more rehabilitative services and who committed nonviolent and non-sex crimes.

“I think that everybody agrees that a person who is going to hurt somebody or commit any type of sex offense is not the type of person we want out on the streets, whether it be because of good time or prison overcrowding,” said Hoort.

He said that people convicted of nonviolent and non-sex crimes, such as drug and alcohol offenses, would most likely benefit from different sentencing guidelines and more rehabilitative services.

Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said that re-implementing good time would bring Michigan sentencing guidelines in line with other states’, while also bringing corrections costs down.

“Yes, there’s consideration of the cost, but that’s not the only thing driving the idea we should reduce the prison population.  We’re really kind of out of whack with other states,” said Meadows.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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Underwater robot hunts Great Lakes secrets

robot

Researchers on the Lake Guardian prepare to launch the Triaxus. Photo by Kimberly Hirai.

By KIMBERLY HIRAI
Capital News Service

One of the Environmental Protection Agency’s newest members uses side-scan sonar to look at the watery depths of Lake Michigan.

Fanning its sound waves down to the lake floor, it searches for the returning signals bouncing off the bottom in search of bounty – and found a shipwreck last year.

But the Triaxus Towed Undulator does more than hunt treasure. Beneath the water, it glides behind the Lake Guardian, the agency’s research vessel based in Chicago.

The actual Lake Guardian research vessel is used to sample and study all of the Great Lakes. However, it is operated by the Chicago-based Great Lakes National Program Office.

With its quick data collection, the agency can do in days what would otherwise take a year, said Glenn Warren, team leader for the agency’s environmental monitoring and indicators group in the Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago.

The Triaxus, weighing more than 250 pounds and standing more than 4 feet high, studies the water and the lake bottom. Its sensors calculate oxygen amounts, test water quality, count plankton, measure chlorophyll and analyze nitrate while viewing the bottom with sonar.

EPA purchased the Triaxus in May 2008 for about $750,000 and first used it to examine parts of Lake Ontario. The agency began its study of Lake Michigan last fall and plans to do at the least the U.S. part of Lake Superior.

The goal is to provide a general view of nearshore patterns. The nearshore begins at the shoreline and reaches a water depth of about 30 feet.

“Once we get that information we can perhaps develop indicators based on the different sensory information,” he said. “Then we can start comparing that year to year.”

For example, Warren said, if EPA researchers knew the area where a river entered the lake, they could determine chlorophyll and zooplankton levels at that point within the nearshore area. Those measurements could be compared with past years’ to see how the river affected the nearshore.
The data gaps are real, as is the need to fill them.

“The difficulties are that it’s a variable environment, so you can go along the shore and get very different chemical and biological readings for measurements and that has led to people not sampling it very frequently or very well,” he said.

Kimberly Hirai writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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Overcrowding challenges Southwest Michigan jails

By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service

LANSING – Southwest Michigan county jails are dealing with overcrowded facilities.

“We experience overcrowding off and on,” said Capt. Tim Schuler, administrator of the St. Joseph County Jail.  The jail was four inmates above capacity as recently as Feb. 11 and its population often fluctuates above and below its 165-inmate capacity.

In rare cases, the jail has asked a judge for an inmate’s early release to make room.
“In the past year, that has only happened once,” Schuler said.

Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association, said early release is a huge problem all over the state.

“If you’re releasing prisoners early, the public is being placed at risk earlier,” he said.  “The fact is, sometimes the only time you’re safe from predators is when they’re locked up.  That’s a horrible thing to say but it’s absolutely true.”

Jungel said that it’s wrong for county jails and state prisons to release inmates early because public safety should never be compromised for the sake of economics.

“Government has no greater responsibility than the protection of its citizens,” he said.  “Everything else pales in comparison.”

John Cordell, public information specialist for the Department of Corrections, disagreed, saying the crime rate hasn’t increased because of early release and initiatives put in place to help returned offenders provide a safety net for the public.

“Today with community partners and law enforcement, we are supervising them better than ever,” he said.

But Jungel said that early releases lessen the impact of being behind bars.

“We’ve really diminished punishment in prison,” he said.  There’s an assumption that, ‘If I get sentenced two to 10, I’m getting out in two.’  That’s the wrong assumption.  The assumption should be, ‘If I get sentenced two to 10, I’m going to do 10 unless I’m a model prisoner.’”

Advocates of early release say it is limited to nonviolent offenders who behave well behind bars.

In St. Joseph County, Schuler said reduced sentences only happen for civil offenders, such as accumulated traffic violations.

“We work back and forth with district and circuit court judges to have them review some of the cases to see if they could possibly change the sentencing on some of them that aren’t violent offenders, like child support, fines and costs,” he said.

But Jungel countered, “I’m really tired of hearing the governor say, ‘We’re releasing people who are not a threat to society.’  That in and of itself is disingenuous.

“We’re releasing people from prison who have been a threat to society.  There is no quantifiable way to say who is and who isn’t going to be a threat to society,” he said.

The Berrien County Jail is near its capacity and some times operates at highly crowded levels, but Capt. Mike Bradley said the jail can handle the situation.

“Right now we’re maintaining our own,” he said.  “We’re able to work through the systems we have in place to keep the population.”

Like St. Joseph County, the Berrien County Jail experiences regular fluctuations in its number of inmates, Bradley said.

“The population does go up and down all the time.  But we’ve always been able to meet the state mandates on overcrowding through tether programs and alternative sentencing programs,” he said.

Tether programs require released offenders to wear a monitoring bracelet that confines them to only a few places, usually their homes and places of work.

“The numbers are always there.  We’re always running high.  When we hit our numbers, we’re able to divert folks to other programs or early releases,” Bradley said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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