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PROGRESS: Fewer inmates doesn't equal lower budget at jail

After seeing a nearly 20 percent drop in inmate population over the last six years, the Gwinnett County jail now has several empty housing units. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

After seeing a nearly 20 percent drop in inmate population over the last six years, the Gwinnett County jail now has several empty housing units. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

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After seeing a nearly 20 percent drop in inmate population over the last six years, the Gwinnett County jail now has several empty housing units. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

LAWRENCEVILLE — The Gwinnett County jail has seen a nearly 20 percent decrease in its inmate population over the last six years, but the effect on its budget — and taxpayers — has been nil.

At the end of 2008, the jail’s average inmate population was 2,691, a total not far from maximum capacity. That number was just 2,180 in 2013.

Sheriff Butch Conway has credited the decline to a controversial federal program called 287(g), which allows his department to check the legal status of anyone booked into the jail and begin immigration proceedings when appropriate.

“We’re not booking in as many illegal aliens as we did in the past,” Conway said in December. “That number’s dropped quite a lot.”

Regardless of the reason, the Gwinnett County jail saw 5,558 fewer inmates last year than it did in 2008. Coupled with an improving economy, that might theoretically lead to some sort of savings.

Not so much.

The sheriff’s office budget has creeped up somewhere around $1 million in most the last several years, and the new budget approved in January allotted the office just under $73.4 million.

“The slight budget increases have been in response to overall price increases, such as fuel, food and utilities,” sheriff’s office spokeswoman Dep. Shannon Volkodav said last month. “There is a small cost-saving measure with a decrease in inmate population, but it’s not signficant.”

Volkodav said no real effect is felt because operational expenses, 75 percent of which are personnel costs, tend to remain consistent. Because the sheriff’s office is, as of Feb. 6, 46 employees short of a full staff, overtime payments to exisiting deputies offset any savings from a reduced inmate population.

Any money not spent from each year’s pre-approved budget is returned to the county’s general fund. Exact numbers for those contributions were not available.

In the four-plus years since the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office adopted 287(g), more than 11,300 detainers have been placed on local arrestees. That number, though, has been decreasing.

According to records kept by the department, 2,926 immigration holds were placed in 2010, the first full year of the program. Nearly 1,000 fewer were used in 2013.

Conway has asserted that the decline in his jail’s inmate population is directly tied to 287(g) and what he believes has been a successful run cracking down on the county’s undocumented residents.

“I think a lot of them did move out of Gwinnett when we started that program,” Conway said late last year, “and I think a lot of them don’t expose themselves to things that will get them arrested.”