On any given day inside the walls of the Clark County Detention Center, about 100 inmates sleep on cots or mattresses on the floor.
Another 150 sit in holding cells in the booking area, waiting for beds to open. Some 350 sleep in beds rented at area jails. About 250 sit home on house arrest.
Overcrowding is a fact of life inside the county jail. It has been for most of three decades.
And although the inmate population has dropped from a peak of more than 3,700 several years ago, jail officials worry that financial desperation amid Southern Nevada’s anemic economy will spark a crime wave that again will test the limits of the jail, which is designed to hold 2,954 inmates.
"I’m waiting for the bubble to burst," said Deputy Chief Leroy Kirkegard, who runs the jail for the Metropolitan Police Department. "We need to be prepared for that when it happens."
The key to that preparation is a nearly finished 1,078-bed low-level offender jail near Nellis Air Force Base. Then-Sheriff Bill Young first proposed such a facility in 2005 with a pitch for a tent city to hold small-time, nonviolent criminals, such as serial shoplifters, vandals and prostitutes, who traditionally have avoided jail time because there isn’t room for them.
That idea evolved into the 200,000-square-foot jail complex set to open late this year. But with the facility nearly complete, Clark County officials are considering keeping it closed for a year to save $13.1 million in operating costs.
The county faces a more than $100 million budget shortfall.
Police department officials have proposed a limited opening with 350 beds, which would save $5.1 million, said Kirkegard, who will speak to the County Commission today as it considers budget issues.
If the jail opened with 500 beds, the county could save $1.2 million, he said.
Even if the facility remains closed, the county must pay $11.3 million to rent the complex from the private developer, The Molasky Group.
Opening the facility would give authorities a place to hold nonviolent misdemeanor offenders who aren’t serving jail time in the crowded county jail in downtown Las Vegas.
Because of the crowded conditions in recent years, jail officials have used "creative inmate management," Kirkegard said.
That includes releasing inmates on their own recognizance, putting them on house arrest and cutting jail sentences by a third with good behavior and work credits, he said.
Justice of the Peace Ann Zimmerman, chief judge for Las Vegas Justice Court, said judges at times have felt subtle pressure from jail staff members about handing out jail sentences.
She welcomed the low-level offender jail, saying it would "stop the revolving door" of repeat misdemeanor offenders who have gotten used to avoiding time behind bars.
"The reason you see them over and over again is because they know nothing will really happen to them," she said.
Kirkegard agreed that the new jail would put people behind bars who should be there and said it will help ease crowded conditions, especially with a possible rise in crime.
With or without the new facility, Kirkegard remains prepared.
When the jail recently bought new fiberglass cots for the inmates, Kirkegard stashed away 200 of the old Army cots the inmates had used.
"Just in case," he said.
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0281.