Perhaps the third time will be the charm for those seeking an expansion to the Washtenaw County Jail. Last Wednesday, the county Board of Commissioners approved a $21.6-million bond issue to add beds to the county jail and improve the district court. The move comes after two other proposals for expanding the jail failed in the last 19 months.

Sarah Royce

The current proposal is certainly better than some of the alternatives – particularly a $314-million jail and courts millage put before voters in the county’s first attempt to expand its jail, an idea that earned the enmity of an ad-hoc activist group, the No Giant Jail Committee.

Nonetheless, the county’s insistence on expanding its jail reflects a dangerous mentality toward criminal justice that has led our nation to have some of the highest incarceration rates in the world. The county’s most recent proposal deserves the fate of its last two. Reforming a flawed legal system that inevitably leads to prison overcrowding is a worthier goal than building ever-bigger lockups.

Should the most recent bond issue go forward, the county will add 96 beds to the existing Washtenaw County Jail, which is chronically overcrowded. Residents have about five weeks to object to the bond issue – as they did last year, when 17,000 signed a petition seeking to force a vote on a $30 million bond issue the board had approved, putting an end to that idea.

Overcrowding is not a problem unique to the Washtenaw County Jail. Nationwide, there has been a roughly four-fold increase in the number of people being incarcerated since 1980, necessitating the construction of new prisons and jails across the country. The driving force behind this increase is not some long-term crime wave, but rather the fundamentally misguided, decades-long war on drugs.

The American obsession with cracking down on drug use has led us to waste countless millions of dollars spent locking up nonviolent drug users. Meanwhile, the illegal yet lucrative drug trade is the core cause of many violent crimes. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have stripped judges of the discretion to distinguish between the truly dangerous and the merely misguided – while adding those with unnecessarily long sentences to the ever-growing list of the incarcerated.

The nation seems not to remember its failed experiment with Prohibition, a policy that was singularly ineffective at keeping those determined to drink from finding alcohol but that did wonders for organized crime. With Republicans always eager to cut taxes and Democrats afraid of being labeled as tax-and-spend liberals, there’s no political will to raise the funds needed to operate the corrections bureaucracy, meaning that schools and social programs are sacrificed to pay for our penal policy. That’s a point particularly salient in Michigan, where despite the state’s grave fiscal woes, the corrections budget has continued to grow – though higher education has faced cuts in recent years.

Expanding prisons and jails whenever they hit their capacities is a pragmatic approach, and it’s probably better than forcing prisoners to sleep in a gym or converted office for lack of a proper bed. However, the nation – and this state, with its troubled economy – cannot afford to build new lockups indefinitely. Decriminalizing drugs, especially those such as marijuana that pose little risk to users, would be a far wiser policy than covering the planet with prisons.

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