Following the sound defeat of Proposal A in late February, Washtenaw County officials have unveiled a new, pared-down plan for expansion of the Washtenaw County jail and court services. The new plan carries an estimated cost of $80 million, a marked reduction from the $314 million price tag of Proposal A. However, this new plan suffers from the same crucial flaw as its predecessor: merely addressing the symptoms of prison crowding instead of tackling the root of the problem.
The new plan would add 96 beds to the jail, upgrade existing jail infrastructure and improve security at county courthouses. Compared with Proposal A, this would result in 100 fewer beds being added to the prison, less improvements to court buildings and no inclusion of funds for treatment of the mentally ill.
The latter cut is particularly disheartening, as it was one of the few aspects of Proposal A with more than just a stopgap approach to diminishing jail crowding. Given estimates that a quarter of those incarcerated in Washtenaw County suffer from some form of mental illness, it is unwise to trim funding that would provide mental health treatment — which may help lower recidivism — for offenders who desperately need it.
Some county officials have indicated that seeking another millage to generate funds for the new jail plan is unlikely, and as a result, the $5.5 million needed annually to support the jail expansion will have to be drawn from the county general fund or diverted from other existing programs. Although officials are correct to assume that another millage would likely meet the same fate as Proposal A, using general fund dollars to support jail expansion is a bad idea. General fund expenditures on the jail will diminish spending in other needed areas, such as education. Potential cuts in other county programs, such as the county road patrol subsidy, are already drawing criticism from city governments in Washtenaw County.
But even without considering the lack of resources for mentally ill prisoners or the funding troubles, the new jail plan is simply the wrong vision for a solution to prison overcrowding. As with Proposal A, the revised plan displays a myopic focus on treating the symptoms of a greater problem (prison overcrowding) rather than the problem itself (drug laws that lead to an unnecessary amount of imprisonment). Instead of continuing to make on-the-fly repairs to a clearly dysfunctional system, Washtenaw County — and all of Michigan — needs to understand and remedy the source of the problem at hand if they wish to avoid a continuous cycle of jail expansion.