Monday night, Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton and Rosemary Sarri, professor emerita of social work at the University of Michiga, debated the need for the $300m, 20-year jail millage that Washtenaw voters will be asked to approve in February.
Shelton claimed the jail’s overcrowding prevents proper treatment of inmates:
The current jail also lacks resources to help inmates with substance abuse and mental health issues, Shelton said.
The county estimates more than 25 percent of inmates have a mental heath issue and that at any time, 10-12 have severe and persistent mental illness, requiring special care.
The millage would provide 18 crisis beds for inmates with serious mental illness and drug addictions.
Shelton said about 70 percent of the cases before him are drug-related and that incarceration is often the only way he can make offenders get help.
“People who know me know I’m not a ‘lock’em up’ judge,” he said during his 20-minute presentation. “But sometimes jail is the only way.”
Sarri responded that expanding the jail will preclude real improvement:
She argued that jail capacity is policy-driven rather than crime-driven and that building a larger jail without trying every alternative is in step with a nationwide “incarceration binge” that has a self-fulfilling result.
“If you have them and if you build them, you will fill them. And then you’ll need more,” Sarri said.
Ann Arbor resident Anna Kirkland, a U-M assistant professor of women’s studies and political science, said that reality and the lack of data may keep her from supporting the millage.
“How do we know we’re not enabling government dysfunction instead of giving incentives to clean the system up?” she asked. “I think a lot of people would support it if not for that possibility.”
Sarri argued that the jail population and length of stay steadily increased from 1997 through 2003, while the number of offenses fell by 19 percent and arrests countywide dropped by 26 percent in that time frame.
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> 18 November: $300m County Jail millage vote: Feb 22