County jail occupancy rose in calendar ’08

An increase in the number of days inmates spent in the Dukes County Jail and House of Correction last year suggests more arrests and convictions for serious crimes on Martha’s Vineyard, according to Sheriff Michael McCormack.

During the one-year period from June 30, 2007, to July 1, 2008 (the latest one-year statistical period), there was an average daily population of 27.4 inmates in the facility. During the same period one year earlier, there was an average daily population of 24.6 inmates. There are 44 beds in the Edgartown facility, though, when circumstances require, some additional accommodations may be arranged.

“It’s a combination of two things,” said Sheriff McCormack last week. “More people are being sentenced, and more people are being held on bail. That’s an indication that the crimes are more serious.”

The sheriff’s data also show that the number of admissions to the jail decreased slightly from year to year, but inmates spent more days behind bars, resulting in a higher average daily population. Last year there were 1,263 admissions, compared with 1,278 the previous year.

Of last year’s admissions, 46 were serving sentences, and 188 were held on pre-trail bail. The rest, 975, either made bail, or were released after their court appearance without a jail sentence.

Another likely reason the daily population increased is a sharp rise in the number of people held on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers.

Last year, 54 people were held on ICE detainers. Sheriff McCormack did not have figures to make a year-to-year comparison. “We just started keeping these statistics,” said Sheriff McCormack. “I know it’s way up.”

Everyone processed into the jail is checked against state and national crime databases, as well as ICE records. ICE may issue a detainee order for a wide range of reasons. A detainee order may be issued for a person who has committed a serious crime, who failed to show up at an immigration hearing, or is simply wanted for questioning. If the record check indicates a detainee order has been issued, local authorities hold the suspect for 48 hours, while ICE determines how they want to handle the case.

Who is jailed here?

An inmate is usually housed at the Dukes County jail if they are sentenced to less than 2.5 years of incarceration. Those sentenced to more are sent to the state prison system. Lawyers often wrangle over the 2.5-year break point in court cases. Assistant district attorney Laura Marshard wants criminals convicted of serious crimes to serve their time in state prison, away from the local jail where they may have a negative influence on those serving time for less serious crimes. Defense attorneys sometimes argue for sentences served on Martha’s Vineyard, because of the perception that state prison is much tougher.

“I think that perception is true,” said Sheriff McCormack. “There’s a more violent person housed in the state prison. They really have the bad guys. It is really a physically tougher time.” Sheriff McCormack said most of those serving sentences on Martha’s Vineyard are not violent. “In a local jail, 75 to 80 percent of the people have an alcohol or a substance abuse issue in their life, they don’t have a violence issue.”

On any given day, there may be from one to four inmates at the Dukes County jail who were transferred from the state prison. Sheriff McCormack said the decision to accept a transfer rests with him, and he usually grants the request if he is convinced the prisoner is in danger at his off-Island facility. Conversely, if a local prisoner causes disturbances here, the sheriff can transfer him to another facility off-Island.

If inmates have four months or less on their sentence, have participated in required educational opportunities, and behaved well, they may be eligible for a work release program. Inmates leave the jail on their own for eight hours per day to work, and return to the facility for nights and weekends. Mr. McCormack feels the program is successful in keeping inmates from committing crimes and quickly returning to jail.

“They start to get some of their freedom back, and they get used to that,” said Sheriff McCormack. “It’s a transition, a re-entry process. It also gives them a chance to amass some resources.”

Sheriff McCormack said he and other county sheriffs are consulting with state prison authorities to see whether programs to reintegrate inmates in society might be adapted to the state prison system.

“I think generally that the Massachusetts sheriffs are progressive in their thinking,” said Sheriff McCormack. “They understand that for somebody to be successful they need certain things. Education is one. Housing is another one. Employment is the other key.