Residents of Washtenaw County will vote tomorrow on a 0.75 mill property tax increase to fund the construction of an expanded jail and a variety of other changes to the county‘s corrections system. Supporters of the jail millage argue that a larger jail is necessary to deal with chronic overcrowding in the current facility. Some programs that would be funded by the increased millage, particularly improvements to the county’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners, are worthy. However, building larger prisons cannot alleviate the problems caused by a flawed criminal justice system that has seen a four-fold increase nationwide in the prison population since 1980. Voters should reject the tax increase to expand the Washtenaw County Jail and instead demand changes to the strict mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders that inevitably lead to prison overcrowding.

Angela Cesere

The proposed millage would raise $314 million over the next 20 years, the vast majority of which would go to pay for the expanded jail. Approximately $48 million would fund an expansion of the county jail and courthouse. A larger jail housing more prisoners would exceed the county’s current corrections budget, and the millage proposal thus includes over $166 million earmarked to operate the expanded jail. After 20 years, the millage will expire, and a millage renewal may be necessary to meet the continued operational costs of a larger jail.

The most promising aspect of the millage is that it would designate $84 million for mental health programs. An estimated one-fourth of Washtenaw County inmates have been diagnosed with some type of mental illness, according to the Ann Arbor News. This problem has worsened because of several closings of mental health facilities by the state. Improving the county’s ability to treat mentally ill prisoners is important, and a millage increase solely for that purpose would certainly deserve the voters’ support.

The mental health provisions, however, constitute little more than a quarter of the funds to be raised by the proposed millage. Fundamentally, this is a proposal about building a larger jail, and the debate should thus focus on the merits of a policy of continual prison expansion.

A 2003 report issued by the Department of Justice found that one in 37 American adults either is imprisoned or has prison experience — the highest rate of incarceration in the world. A prime reason for this high incarceration rate is the vigorous prosecution of nonviolent crimes, particularly drug possession offenses. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws take flexibility in allocating prison resources away from judges and parole boards.

The proposed millage might temporarily alleviate prison overcrowding, and its passage, if nothing else, would provide needed funds to mental health services. Certainly, it is tempting and in some ways easier to address laws that lead to a burgeoning prison population by simply building more prisons. Such a stopgap policy, however, cannot be carried out forever. The taxpayers of Washtenaw County deserve a better vision.

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