and the life of a county clerk
The jail millage. This is extremely belated, but should be noted here.
On February 22, Washtenaw County held an election to vote on a proposed property tax increase ("millage" is the Michigan term) to fund jail renovation and expansion, renovation of space to relocate the 14A District Court, and mental health services for the 25% of jail inmates who are mentally ill.
The proposal was voted down 62% to 38%.
I strongly supported the millage, and I'm very disappointed (though not surprised) that it failed. I apologize to my readers for not expounding on this here before the election. I did write a lot of post-election commentary in the jail millage item at ArborUpdate.
The county is required to provide an adequate jail. The current, overcrowded jail fails that test, both because of the lack of facilities (prisoners sleeping in the gym, hence, no exercise space, and many other problems) and its small size. Indeed, due partly to population growth, we have the smallest jail per capita of the 83 counties in Michigan.
Since the millage failed, the county will now be forced by the state and/or the courts to cut deeply into other programs to build a new jail anyway. The current jail, built in 1978, was also forced on the county, because the old downtown jail was ruled to be inadequate. That history is about to be repeated.
In retrospect, the ballot proposal had no chance of success because of the confluence of three factors.
First, voters in general are not interested in voting increased taxes to fund jails and courtrooms that most of them never see. Even in this highly educated county, many people have the notion that incarceration should be cheap and brutal, and that any money spent to build or maintain jail facilities, or to do anything whatever with the jail population, is "coddling criminals." And in any case, property taxes are already high here.
Second, liberal voters in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are skeptical of any increase in jail capacity. For some, this is linked to frustration that the medical marijuana decriminizalization passed by Ann Arbor is not being taken seriously by law enforcement authorities. Others, perhaps, are concerned about the growth of the incarcerated population and the "prison industrial complex" that serves it. (More about my own perspective on this another time.)
Finally and perhaps most important, voters in the rural western townships of the county are still angry about the county's decision, four years ago, to force townships to pay for sheriff's department services. Those townships have high voter turnouts, and voted "no" by margins ranging from 3:1 to 11:1.
Ironically, the most direct result of the vote is that the county's remaining subsidy for sheriff's road patrol will be deleted from the budget to pay for the required jail capacity. Possibly some townships will get together to create police departments, but the cost of funding those services will undoubtedly be much more than the 0.75 mill asked for jail expansion.
Since there is zero funding and zero political salience, the crisis of thousands of mentally ill caught up in the criminal justice system will not be addressed. The state has closed its mental hospitals and has pretty much abandoned funding mental health services. I don't think it's a good thing to house the mentally ill in county jails, but that's the course our electorate has chosen, and it certainly is cheaper than treatment.
However, jail overcrowding is a pressing reality, and the county's legal obligation to provide capacity creates an imperative which overrides other policies. Meanwhile, to relieve pressure on state prisons, many prisoners are being shifted to county jails, and counties do not have the option to refuse them.
I expect construction to begin on the new cells next spring at the latest.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments
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