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More people required to enforce 287(g) program

Editor's note: The following opinion piece is in response to Chairman Charles Bannister's column, which appeared in last Sunday's paper. Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais wrote this column at the request of Sheriff Butch Conway, who is recovering from back surgery.

At Sheriff Conway's direction, I have been asked to address the misstatements made by Chairman Charles Bannister in last week's op-ed piece regarding the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) 287(g) program. I am not here to argue politics, only to straighten the record.

Sheriff Conway has clearly indicated he wants the 287(g) program - a program designed to help jails identify illegal aliens and assist in their deportation - and he will find a way to do it. What the sheriff adamantly refuses to do is participate in a media fight with the chairman, but he will defend our agency against unwarranted attacks.

While the jail is certainly our largest division and the one with the most liability, it is not our only responsibility. We must provide courtroom and courthouse security, serve all civil papers and dispossessory notices issued in the county and serve criminal warrants, among other duties.

In a press release the chairman sent out recently, he stated he would provide the funding for 287(g) because he knew there would be a cost. In last weekend's article, he criticizes the increases to our budget over the past five years, stating our budget has more than doubled in those years and has grown at a higher rate than any other department. This statement was rather shocking since the monetary increases to our budget came as a direct result of increased growth. What is clear is critical key facts were left out of that statement.

The total increase to our budget over that five-year period is $30.2 million. The overall increase to the police department's budget - an agency we're often compared to - for the same time period is $30.1 million. There was only a $50,433 difference between the budgets of the two agencies in that time frame.

In the past five years, we have constructed and opened a new jail tower, doubling our total bed capacity to 2,768, and increased the number of courtrooms at the jail. A new Juvenile and Recorder's Courthouse opened, adding six new courtrooms. We went to full building security at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, and we saw five new judges added. All of those additions required increased staffing, and we had to have those positions.

In addition, our jail population jumped during that time frame - from 1,486 in 2002 to more than 2,700 in 2007. Civil papers rose from 52,633 in 2002 to 70,257 in 2007, and evictions went from 4,930 in 2002 to 7,589 in 2007. There was an increase in criminal warrants during the same time period from 19,591 to the current number of 24,887.

The chairman acknowledged that "some growth may be necessary" but did not mention that the initial increase in our budget was to help bring the department up to a more proper level from many years of inadequate funding. The largest increase was to staff the additional jail tower, to provide for the increases we needed in court security and to staff new courtrooms when additional judges were added.

When our new jail tower was completed last year, the sheriff gave instructions to expedite bringing back inmates who had been housed out to other agencies. That move required staffing some housing units with overtime deputy positions, but the move netted the county nearly $2 million in savings.

We were also criticized for the cost of housing inmates with the statement "there is simply no justification for having the inmate cost per day balloon from $34 a day in 2000 to more than $56 a day in 2008."

I don't know of anything that hasn't increased in cost in the last six years. Just look at gas prices, your grocery bill or the rising costs of health care that leave many unable to afford health insurance and you can see the dramatic increases from the past six years. The hard cost to house inmates per day in 2007 was $43.90 per day, not the $56 the chairman stated. The most accurate way to determine inmate housing costs is to take the entire jail budget and divide it by the average number of inmates for that year.

Since 2002, the police department has added 237 new personnel, and we were approved for 296 new positions. We have been criticized by the chairman for not hiring all qualified applicants, but the percentage of all applicants hired by the Sheriff's Department since 2005 is 2.58 percent, while the percentage for the Police Department for the same time frame is 2.82 percent. Both the Sheriff's Department and Police Department maintain high hiring standards, and the sheriff will not apologize for that.

The sheriff has given his justification for the number of deputies he would need to implement the 287(g) program so that we can catch 100 percent of the number of illegal immigrants coming through the jail. It is the sheriff's responsibility to run his organization, and not properly manning this program will ultimately be detrimental to the department and to the citizens of Gwinnett County.

The bottom line is Sheriff Conway is for the 287(g) program. He does need additional people for the program to operate the way it was designed. The chairman states in his article that he believes we should staff the 287(g) program with current personnel. You cannot staff a new program with current personnel unless you drop another program or services.

It would not be in the best interest of anyone to further tax an agency already bursting at the seams without some relief in additional personnel.

Stacey Bourbonnais is the spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department.