As Wayne County lets accused criminals out, is jail wasting millions by paying big overtime costs?

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Metro Detroit has its share of inmates but more and more these days, it's running out of places to put them. 

"I have a thousand empty beds on any given day," said Sheriff Benny Napoleon.

"I don't have money to put deputies in the jail to open the floors."

And that's why any money wasted at the county's jail can mean the difference between accused criminals on or off the street. A 7 Action News investigation finds that the county is wasting plenty.

Last year, the Wayne County Sheriffs Department spent almost $12 million in overtime—the most on record. It's maddened sheriffs officials, who say they don't have enough officers to keep up with all the county's inmates.

Insiders estimate they need between 42 and 50 new officers, and say they've been asking for more manpower for years. Hiring those employees would be cheaper than paying all that overtime, and the sheriff would save at least $3 million.

"Mathematically, it doesn't make sense.  We should be hiring younger officers," said Undersheriff Dan Pfannes.

But the man holding that up, sheriffs officials say, is County Executive Robert Ficano. Back when he was the county's top cop, he complained the department was being way underfunded by County CEO Ed McNamara.  But his tune has changed since then.

He wouldn't agree to an interview for this story, so 7 Action News had to catch up with him at a senior citizens' luncheon.

"How concerned are you about the excessive overtime costs in the jail?" asked 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones.

"Well that's something that's being worked out. They're looking at it and they're going see what they need to do it within their budget, it's a budget issue," responded Ficano.

Ficano said Sheriff Napoleon agreed to this year's budget back in the summer, and that's true. But at the time he did, there were about 1,800 inmates in the county jail. Since then, that number has swelled to 2,100.

"First of all, there hasn't been a request for more bodies. When there's a request, we've already started to fill it," said Ficano.

Napoleon said that's "disingenuous."

A request for 24 new cops was delayed for months, he says. In an April letter Napoleon's office provided, a sheriffs official calls Ficano's jail budget "unreasonable" and "impossible."

Ficano insists though that his office has responded to the Sheriff's needs. 

"I am telling you that everything has been reasonably done within the budget," Ficano said.

"Why does the sheriff say otherwise?" asked Jones.

"Well at this point he's over his budget," Ficano responded.

The effects of wasted money inside the jail can be seen on Wayne County's streets. That $3 million is enough to house almost 60 accused criminals for a year. Today, the jail's letting plenty out. 

Hundreds of inmates charged with crimes like breaking an entering, drug offenses and even assaults are released each month. They're put on electronic tethers so the county can make room for the worst of the worse and save money. As recent criminals have proven: tethers are sometimes easy to escape from.

It's not just the jail's bottom line that's taking a hit. Sheriffs officials say excessive overtime taxes the limits of overworked officers tasked with guarding dangerous inmates. A union grievance from last November blames exhaustion on the county's "refusal to fill vacant budgeted positions."

"I have officers who have gone and had medical reasons to say I can't work this overtime. I have to force people to work it," Napoleon said.

But is politics partly to blame for the budget battle? Yes, says Detroit political consultant Eric Foster, who managed Mayor Dave Bing's last campaign.

When Warren Evans was sheriff, Ficano fought his old political nemesis tooth and nail for the same kinds of things Napoleon is asking for. If he gives in to Napoleon's requests, says Foster, Ficano could open the door to criticism.

"Here comes the question: why couldn't you have done that with Sheriff Evans? Why did you potentially sacrifice public safety for political gain?" Foster said.

Ficano denies that politics plays any role here. He says more than 70% of the county's budget goes towards public safety. He acknowledged that the overtime issue is a problem, and promised to review it after our interview. 

That's good news to Napoleon but he's not holding his breath. Last month his jail let out 268 inmates to save money.

"We have some of the most dangerous people in America in my jail," Napoleon said, "and I think they should stay there."

Ficano's Chief Financial Officer has agreed to meet with Sheriff Napoleon next week to try to find a way to resolve the jail's high overtime costs. Last month they made a dent in it by graduating 24 new officers but officials say they need a lot more. 

If you have a tip for the 7 Action News Investigators, contact us at tips@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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