November 18, 2018

Sheriff’s Work Crew makes its return after 4-year absence

Judge says not the same program that caused issues before

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WEST BRANCH — Almost exactly four years after shuttering the Sheriff’s Work Program, Ogemaw County’s judges have reinstated it, although Judge Richard Noble said it will be significantly different from its last iteration. 

The work program was shut down May 7, 2014, when Noble sent a letter to Sheriff Howie Hanft notifying him that inmates sentenced in district court would no longer be eligible for the program. Former 34th Circuit Court Judge Michael Baumgartner had pulled the plug on his participation in the program two months prior. 

Noble cited changing conditions regarding people sentenced to jail time in the county as his reasoning at the time for shuttering the program. 

“Times have changed,” Noble told the Herald in 2014. “The caliber of inmates has changed. I knew it was inevitable that it was going to end because of liability issues. This is something that had to happen. It was not something the judges just wanted to do.”

A number of former inmates filed a class action lawsuit against the county — which was later settled for an undisclosed amount — after former Sheriff’s Work Crew Supervisor Jim Gustafson pleaded no contest and was sentenced to prison on two counts of criminal sexual conduct second-degree assault committed on inmates while he was in charge of them. 

But Noble told the Herald last week that after receiving repeated requests from area organizations, such as the West Branch Little League and the Ogemaw County Fair, he and Judge Robert Bennett decided to bring the program back, with some changes. 

“We’re signing this as a standing court order,” Noble said. “This is not like the old program. It’s not the same thing.”

“I’ve been having people talk to me or approach me for years, ever since the old program shut down, about, ‘We need help,’” Noble said. “I’d say, ‘Look, that old program’s dead.’ And Judge Baumgartner told Sheriff Hanft years ago that, ‘Look, if you want to take a limited number of inmates out, supervised by a deputy or corrections officer, we don’t care. We’re good with that.’ But the days of being supervised by someone at the fairgrounds or an employee at the humane society, those days are gone.”

Noble and Bennett developed a list of 20 rules the new program must follow. When asked about the liability of the county if something were to happen, Noble said the county always has liability. 

“They’re liable for them in the jail,” he said. “Liabilities exist everywhere.”

He said people who might be concerned because of problems in the past should recognize that this is something different than what was available four years ago. 

“This is not the same program,” Noble said. “This is under court order. If someone violates this order, whether it’s the inmates themselves or an individual, they’re subject to contempt of court. And I’m not going to play games. If I see abuses, which I don’t anticipate, but if there’s a problem, I’ll stop it. And Sheriff Hanft is aware of all that. He’s supportive of all that.”

But while Noble implied he and Hanft were on the same page, there were some inconsistencies in talking to both. For example, Noble said only six inmates would be allowed out on the work program at a time, regardless of whether more corrections officers were available to oversee them. Hanft told the Herald the limit was just six inmates per supervisor. 

“If we had two supervisors … we could put two crews out,” Hanft told the Herald last week. “It would be hard to do. It’d be hard to find the inmates.”

Noble also said his understanding was that the organization using the inmates for work would be responsible for paying for the corrections officer supervising them, but Hanft said that would be paid out of the inmates’ commissary fund. 

When the Herald spoke to Hanft May 11, he said the program had been running for two weeks that day. At that point, the inmates had only been used at the Little League fields, where Hanft is also the president. He said he had also already reached out to the Ogemaw County Fair to let it know inmates were available. The fairgrounds was one of the places the inmates were used the most in the past, including during fair week. But because the program was still new, Hanft said there wasn’t a lot of demand for it yet. 

“A lot of people don’t know anything’s going on,” he said. “It’s just back. It’s just new. Obviously there’s a lot more places that will want to use them.”

Hanft said there would be no labor cost to the organizations wishing to use the inmates, but they might need to provide tools.  

Despite the lawsuits and legal problems in the past, Hanft said no one was ever hurt under the old program. 

“There’s never been anybody ever hurt,” Hanft said. “There’s been inmates going out for at least 20 years. There’s never been anybody hurt. But they weren’t supervised to the extent they are now. They have to be supervised. It’s going to make it a lot tighter.”

Hanft brushed off any problems that may have occurred in the past as minor. 

“Even before there were minor problems,” he said. “They have minor problems in society. That’s why they’re in jail. People drive drunk, use drugs. Even in the real world you have people doing that stuff.”

He said the work program has never included violent offenders or sex offenders, and Noble added that they are not allowed out as part of this program. 

“We don’t put violent people out,” Hanft said. “I’ve never been concerned about somebody getting hurt or mugged.”

He said just the short time the inmates have been working on the Little League fields has been a huge help. 

“It’s been huge,” he said. “We had a work day and six (volunteers) showed up. But if you’re out there now, you won’t find a piece of litter. You won’t find anything out of place. If they weren’t around, we’d be done. Parents just don’t have the time or energy. And it’s going to save finances because you’re not hiring people to do the work. Financially it’s tough to raise money right now.”

“I encourage people to watch them if they’re around,” Hanft said. “Watch what they do. See the work they’ve done. It’s hard to find volunteers to go out and work. They’re getting work done and it will help.”

Under the new rules, inmates must be under direct supervision of a deputy sheriff or corrections officer at all times. They will no longer be allowed to be supervised only by the organization checking them out, nor will they be allowed to walk back to the jail alone at the end of their shift. They must return to the jail no later than 10 p.m.

Also of note, any female inmates participating in the program must be supervised by a female deputy or corrections officer. 

The news of the return of the work crew was not met with open arms from county commissioners. Commissioner Brenda Simmons, who is not seeking re-election this year, spoke out against it during her report during the county’s May 10 meeting. 

“This board was not informed of that, nor were we even conferred with,” Simmons said. “We just had our premiums reduced significantly because we hadn’t had any lawsuits since that work crew ended.”

Simmons said she had spoken to the judges about the issue. 

“Judge Noble didn’t want to argue the situation anymore,” she said. “He made his decision, and that’s what it’s going to be. He said he will stay on top of it.”

“So far (Hanft) had an untrained person in charge of people at the Little League field,” Simmons said. “My understanding is that the young man in charge of them drove the inmates back to jail. He was not hired by the county. He’s not on the payroll and not trained. I spoke to some of the people in the county. Most are not in favor of this program coming back.”

Simmons predicted there will be a problem once again. 

“The question is not if we’re going to have lawsuits, the question is when are we going to have lawsuits,” she said. “That’s what it is. So we’re on the hook for the liability. The judges made the decision. I go by the record of the past. There was a reason it stopped. Let the games begin.”

Correction: A previous version of this story had the wrong name for Judge Michael Baumgartner. We regret the error. 

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Rhoda

So who pays for there pizza and soda like before the tax payers. I do not agree this program needs to come back you did the crime you sit and serve the time with no special treatment that's what I tell my kids don't call me if your in the wrong this is suppose to be jail not a get out of jail card

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