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Sheriff: Jail's dropping population due to controversial immigration program

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)

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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 Photos: Brendan Sullivan)

photo

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 Photos: Brendan Sullivan)

photo

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 — In the latter months of 2006, the Gwinnett County jail opened its Wimberly Tower. An addition that more than doubled the facility’s capacity for housing inmates, it was scheduled to be just the first phase of ongoing expansions.

By the end of 2008, the jail’s average inmate population was 2,691 — about 75 shy of maximum capacity.

“Five or six years ago, we envisioned starting a second tower by now,” Sheriff Butch Conway said.

Since then, the need has slowly vanished.

The Gwinnett County jail saw 34,341 inmate admissions in 2013, a drop of more than 5,500 inmates and about 14 percent when compared with 2008. Over the same time period, the jail’s average inmate population dropped roughly 19 percent, hitting just 2,180 last year. A facility that was once “severely overcrowded” now has “a lot of empty housing units.”

Conway, Gwinnett’s sheriff since 1997, pointed to one primary factor: a controversial federal program called 287(g).

Under 287(g), local law enforcement is permitted to check the immigration status of detainees, then begin deportation proceedings if appropriate. The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, adopted the program in 2009. Across the country, 36 agencies now participate in the program.

Over the last four-plus years, detainers have been placed on more than 11,200 Gwinnett arrestees. But the yearly additions to that total are getting smaller, Conway said.

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

According to his office’s own statistics, he’s correct.

Records available online show that in 2010, the first full year of 287(g), a total of 2,926 immigration detainers were placed on inmates coming into the Gwinnett County jail. Last year, that number reached only 1,930.

The sheriff believes 287(g) has been successful in curbing crime from Gwinnett’s undocumented population, the vast majority of which has Hispanic roots.

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

Latino and immigration rights officials don’t agree.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, didn’t dispute Conway’s claims that fewer undocumented residents were being arrested in Gwinnett. He did, however, say that the sheriff is “delusional” if he thinks 287(g) is rectifying the county’s crime situation.

He said the threat of deportation has made even legal members of the Latino community afraid to report crimes perpetrated against themselves, friends and family.

“The undocumented population has actually just gone further underground,” Gonzalez said. “It’s actually making Gwinnett County less safe, where people are just not bothering to interact with law enforcement.”

Azadeh Shahshahani, immigrants’ rights project director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, echoed that thought. She contended that 287(g) has created “an atmosphere of fear and lack of trust for community members, which is particularly problematic when it comes to public safety.”

Gonzalez said his organization agrees with what he called “the intent” of 287(g): to “remove people that have committed serious crimes in our communities.” But Gwinnett’s implementation, he argued, has been built on far less.

Of the 11,192 detainers placed on Gwinnett immigrants through the end of last year, nearly 52 percent were based solely on traffic violations. Any immigrant-connected decrease in the Gwinnett jail population is tied to everyday people becoming “savvier,” Gonzalez said. He spoke of “text trees” sent among the Latino community to help avoid traffic stops and other police activity.

In 2010, 462 detainers were placed based only on driver’s license violations; that total was 198 last year.

Whatever the reason behind it, the Gwinnett County jail’s inmate decline is unlikely to have a real financial impact on the sheriff’s office — or taxpayers.

The estimated cost to support each inmate is $48 per day, and sheriff’s office spokeswoman Dep. Shannon Volkodav said an informal study done a few years ago placed the average “stay” at the jail somewhere around 17 days.

Theoretically, 5,558 fewer inmates could mean a 2013 budget roughly $4.5 million less than that of 2008. In reality, the sheriff’s office budget has slowly creeped upward each of the last several years — this week, the Board of Commissioners approved the department’s 2014 budget just shy of $73.4 million.

“The slight budget increases have been in response to overall price increases, such as fuel, food and utilities,” Volkodav said. “There is a small cost saving measure with a decrease in inmate population, but it’s not significant.”

Officials said that’s because operational expenses, 75 percent of which are personnel costs, remain fairly consistent regardless. Because the sheriff’s office is understaffed, overtime payments also help offset any savings from a reduced inmate population, Volkodav said. Any money not spent from each year’s pre-approved budget is returned to the county’s general fund.

The only tangible savings from the jail’s smaller inmate population, then, have come in the absence of a second tower once thought unavoidable.

“Those plans are off the table, hopefully,” Conway said. “That’s one goal I have as long as I’m sheriff, not to build any more jail space.”