Arbor Update

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Washtenaw County Jail Millage vote today

22. February 2005 • Murph
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Today is the County-wide vote on a 20-year, 0.75mill tax increase to construct a larger County jail, operate that larger jail, and provide alternative treatment programs. While there seems to be general consensus that the alternative programs (such as mental health services and drug addiction treatment) are desirable, that programming accounts for slightly more than a quarter of the predicted $314 million revenues from the millage, with the rest of the revenue dedicated to constructing the larger jail, operating it for 20 years, and paying debt service on the construction bonds, and these other costs have generated a lot of resistance.

The millage’s supporters have stated that the County jail needs to be expanded in order for any part of the local justice system – even alternative treatments – to be effective. The Washtenaw County Criminal Justice Collaborative Council, the body which drafted the proposal, has seen plenty of airtime in the Ann Arbor News, with such articles as “Criminals love crowded jail” and “Tax would help keep mentally ill out of jail”.

Opposition to the millage has received less publicity, with the “No Giant Jail Committee” and the website the closest things to official opposition groups. NGJC founder Chuck Ream, has championed the view that an expanded jail will reduce pressure on the County to seek alternative solutions, making it easy for the County to simply lock up non-violent offenders, with marijuana users Ream’s largest concern (especially after Ann Arbor’s Police Chief in November ordered his officers to ignore the successful ballot initiative meant to shield medical marijuana users from police harassment or prosecution).

A Michigan Daily article on a protest against the jail millage cites Ream as offering a compromise position,

Despite his grievances, Ream said that if the University and the community contributed to a revised draft of the millage proposal, he would be in favor of a similar proposal appearing on the ballot in three to six months since it would come from the community. This sentiment was reflected by a flier that was being distributed by the protesters, which said “Vote No on Proposal A! Help Create Plan B!�

and, in yesterday’s editorial, Throwing away the key, the Daily came out against the millage, saying,

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.

ArborUpdate doesn’t so much have editorials in which to take positions on things; you should read this piece as written by somebody who will be voting “no”.

> View the text of the proposal
> Some polling locations have changed: check yours at

  1. I used to date Ream’s daughter. He’s a decent guy (and he used to be, what, a township trustee?)
       —js    Feb. 22 '05 - 07:27PM    #
  2. Yeah, Ream was Scio Twp trustee or supervisor for quite a long time. But I don’t remember offhand how long or when.
       —Murph    Feb. 22 '05 - 08:54PM    #
  3. I find those AA News headlines really pathetic—they aren’t even PRETENDING to use neutral wording.

    I also found a banner hung on Detroit Street reading “No on A- $ 4 schools, not for jails” pretty idiotic and simplistic as well—this wouldn’t take money away from schools, and it isn’t an either-or issue.

    That said, I’m still debating how to vote… leaning “no” at the moment, but I’ve got a few hours.
       —Brandon    Feb. 22 '05 - 09:08PM    #
  4. There’s a good discussion of this going on over on livejournal
       —Murph    Feb. 22 '05 - 09:53PM    #
  5. Brandon, yeah, that doesn’t make so much sense. Though it is the case that voting “yes” on a millage now makes people less likely to vote “no” on the next one, regardless of what it is – people do consider their total tax burden when deciding on new taxes, regardless of how different the destinations of the money are.

    I’ve seen in a few places the argument that, “We should vote ‘yes’, because they’re going to build the new jail regardless, and, if we don’t give them new money, they’ll just take money away from other things.” Sounds like a bad reason to vote yes on the millage, but a good reason to vote people out of office.
       —Murph    Feb. 22 '05 - 10:00PM    #
  6. Yeah. I haven’t been to happy with the way the opposition has been casting their message. At the AA Social Forum (which I flitted in and out of on Saturday) (is “flitted” a word?) a guy got up briefly to speak about it. He harped on how property taxes are already too high, etc, etc. which is not a message that resonates with me at all, and isn’t one I think liberals/progressives need to use at all. Property taxes are fine if they’re going to something that has a significant enough benefit to justify them, so I’d much rather hear a criticism of the project on its merits or demerits.

    I also saw a flyer that had some proposed alternatives, which included decriminalization of marjuana at the top of the list. I’m all for that, but for it to be a convincing argument in this debate, I’d want to see some numbers (e.g., what percentage of inmates in the county jail are there on marijuana charges, anyway?)

    Overall, the impression I got is the organized opposition didn’t do their homework. My vote is mostly knee-jerk, admittedly … but I don’t feel too bad about it because neither side did a very good job of convincing me.
       —Scott    Feb. 22 '05 - 10:01PM    #
  7. Hmmmm…I just went to vote, at Northside School instead of Bursley, and found out while talking to the poll worker that all Bursley residents were to vote at Northside as well. That seems inconvenient, to say the least. How many Bursley residents even know that Ann Arbor has elementary schools, let alone know how to get there?
       —Murph    Feb. 23 '05 - 12:23AM    #
  8. The millage went down about 63% to 37%.

    I strongly supported the millage, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to write that up in my blog.

    The county is REQUIRED to provide an adequate jail. The current 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.

    Hence, we 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.

    Had the millage passed, we would have had some funding for mental health treatment for the 25% of jail inmates who are mentally ill. That will not be possible now. The only thing we will be able to afford is more cells to lock people up.

    Murph, I’m pretty angry at your contention that county officials should be voted out of office over this. We’re doing the best we can with extremely limited resources and extreme pressures from the state and the courts.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 23 '05 - 05:24AM    #
  9. sorry this has nothing to do with the jail millage, but if anyone is curious about the Coke Resolution, I covered it in my blog.
       —Mike (Mcfo)    Feb. 23 '05 - 05:29AM    #
  10. Larry, I think that a better job could have been done to convince the public that this was a good/necessary proposal, rather than simply informing them that it was going to happen, and, oh, by the way, there’s a vote that’s going to happen.

    The choice that the CJCC seemed to be presenting was, “You can vote for this, and we will build a new jail, and will be able to provide alternative services, or you can vote against, and we will build a new jail.” I would prefer a proposal that says something like, “We will provide alternative services, and may expand capacity, but only as necessary to support those alternative services.” One of those presentations uses the promise of mental health services as a vaguely promised carrot, the other makes them central.

    One of my housemates (who knew nothing about the millage) noted that the mailing he got from a mental health advocacy group nowhere in the copy said that the millage would create mental health services – only that it could. If even the folks purely motivated by the mental health services aspect can’t make affirmative statements, it’s a bum deal. Maybe this is just a case of the CJCC doing a bad job of explaining the proposal to people, and maybe it would have been the case that passing the proposal would have guaranteed certain services, rather than just enabling them, but that’s certainly not the story I got.

    The presentation of this proposal showed me that the people behind it are not people who are interested in the jail as a tool of last-resort after everything else has been tried, but are interested in the jail as the default option, with alternative treatments existing as a tool to manage jail capacity. If I had gotten the impression that they were/are sincere in valuing alternatives to incarceration, then I would have voted for the proposal. Instead, I got the impression that they were throwing in the mental health part in order to buy my support of something I wouldn’t have otherwise supported. That annoys me.

    Now, if the alternative to the millage is, as you say, to cut other services and build the jail anyways, that just reinforces my opinion that the people in charge of this process are people who are primarily interested in incarceration – the stick of cutting other services isn’t any more convincing that the carrot of vague promises of alternative services; it just makes me feel even more manipulated.

    And I think that’s not the only option, either. There are ballot opportunities every three months. Three months is enough time for them to come up with something that’s actually palatable, and not enough time for the current situation to degrade much further. After they flubbed this one (polling at 57% in favor at the beginning of the campaign to only winning 37% of the vote?), they’ll have to work pretty hard to turn things around, but I think they can do it. Some suggestions:

    1. Come down on Oates to change his position on A2’s medical marijuana initiative. Get the County Sheriff and the County Prosecutor to take official positions that simple possession is not something they’re going to expend any resources on whatsoever. That’ll take care of the petty libertarian crowd who see pot possession as emblematic of the problems with the police.

    2. Come up with a proposal that sounds like it was written by mental health professionals and alternative sentencing experts, rather than by status quo incarceration types, with the other stuff tacked on as an afterthought.

    3. Present jail expansion as a fallback method, rather than as the core of the proposal, and implement a policy assuring that expansion will only occur if absolutely necessary. Set up an oversight body of alternative treatment experts to make sure this policy is followed.

    I find it unfortunate that I had to vote against the mental health services and against the court renovation in order to express my disapproval of the jail expansion. If they want to go ahead and cut other services in order to renovate the court, I’m fine with that. I’m not happy with the false choice they presented on jail expansion, though. And if the County officials see the choice as a new tax for jail expansion vs. cutting other services for jail expansion, and can’t conceive of solutions that don’t involve jail expansion as a first step, well, I think they deserve the public displeasure that’s going to occur when they cut services. If we have to get rid of our current officials in order to get people who can conceive of real choices (or, at least, people who are competent at explaining the choices presented as the best choices available), well, so be it.
       —Murph    Feb. 23 '05 - 02:15PM    #
  11. And, Larry, I know that you’ve been buried in the task of making the election run well, but I’m sad that you didn’t get a chance to express your support for the proposal. You’re one of the people who could have possibly swayed my opinion by merit of being close enough to the problem to understand it and being considered a trusted source for high-quality analysis of it. For all the reasons I state above, it would have taken a lot to convince me, but I’m sorry that I didn’t seek out your opinion before solidifying mine.
       —Murph    Feb. 23 '05 - 02:22PM    #
  12. I wasn’t in charge of the design of or the campaign for the proposal. But I don’t think any of your suggestions would have made any difference in the outcome.

    The crisis of inadequate jail capacity IS INDEED the one which drives this whole process. “The people in charge of the process” who have the hammer over our heads, are the courts and the state. They see a crisis to which jail expansion is the only possible solution, and they hold all the cards in this game.

    Yes, there is also the crisis of grossly inadequate treatment for thousands of mentally ill individuals caught up in the criminal justice system—a crisis which was made enormously worse by the state abandoning the mentally ill as a budget priority.

    This millage proposal was an attempt to get mental health into the solution to the jail capacity problem. But we failed.

    Indeed, the treatment aspects of the proposal were derided as “pork” and used as a potent argument to defeat the proposal.

    An alternate proposal which, as you suggest, “written by mental health professionals and alternative sentencing experts” (i.e., people who can be portrayed as “soft on criminals”) would have been lucky to get 20% in favor, and only that much because this is such a liberal county.

    The jail capacity problem WILL be solved. The mental health problem has zero political salience, and zero funding, and will now be ignored.

    That “poll” (which included arguments in favor of the jail) was complete b.s., and shouldn’t be understood as any kind of valid reading of the electorate. Doing the “poll” at all (worse yet, publicizing it) was one of many mistakes by the campaign in favor. But I can see now that no campaign could possibly have passed this.

    Given the overwhelming margin of defeat, there will not be any more proposals. This wasn’t the first attempt.

    If we don’t start building more cells this summer, a court order will force us to get started.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 23 '05 - 04:04PM    #
  13. Maybe the county shouldn’t put this type of proposal on a stand-alone ballot. Perhaps this was an effort to help the proposal pass by setting it up for a referendum guaranteed to be low-turnout. The city has certainly done this intentionally a number of times in the past. If so the strategy failed badly. My own sense is that stand-alone referendums that involve spending public money usually galvanize the anti-tax forces without sufficiently mobilizing the supporters. It is common sense—the people who might well think that a new jail is needed, based on Larry’s reasoning, don’t necessarily care enough to head to the polls on a nasty winter day. But the people riled up about their property taxes will turn out in disproportionate numbers. Also quite a number of us are annoyed that the police chief and other leaders are refusing to give an inch to the overwhelmingly expressed will of the people about decriminalizing medical marijuana, which raised some questions about Larry’s belief that the so-called “soft on crime” position would only poll about 20% in this community. But mainly I think the lesson here is that city and county leaders should put referenda on the ballots at times guaranteed to get the most voter support, and not try to sneak things through during the slow years without any other elections. If the public policy is legitimate enough, ultimately it is the responsibility of elected leaders to make that case.
       —Matt    Feb. 23 '05 - 05:11PM    #
  14. A similar proposal was on a November general election ballot and was also resoundingly defeated.

    I don’t think voters are interested in voting any more taxes to support the criminal justice system under any circumstances. That is just political reality.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 23 '05 - 05:44PM    #
  15. Also, remember that the relevant community for this purpose is not the city of Ann Arbor, but the entire county. Moreover, the medical marijuana proposal was a “free” vote with no direct tax implications.

    Maybe 20% is a low estimate for a prisoner services millage, but it would certainly never pass countywide.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 23 '05 - 05:47PM    #
  16. If there is a court order to spend money on a new jail, and the money comes out of trash pickup or school programs or something else sacrosanct here in treetown, then the political equation could well change.
       —Matt    Feb. 23 '05 - 05:48PM    #
  17. (Larry, correct me if I’m wrong), Matt, they won’t be cutting things like trash pickup or school programs – the first is city revenues and the second school district, and both are totally separate from County funding. Here’s the latest County budget summary if you want to make guesses about what’ll be cut.
       —Murph    Feb. 23 '05 - 09:04PM    #
  18. (cynicism warning) So, Larry, it seems like what you’re saying is that any proposal that stressed alternatives to incarceration enough to get Ann Arbor on board would have alienated enough out-county voters that it would have failed? And we’ve seen the other option, which is to stress jail expansion, and that certainly didn’t win enough out-county voters to overcome the outrage that tactic sparked in A2. Or, maybe, just maybe, if they had adopted a halfway effective campaign tack in the city, they could have rallied people to come out and support it? I had read basically every A2News article, every A2News letter to the editor, and half a dozen other Googled sources on the matter, and nowhere did I see the message that this is our first, last, only, and best hope for mental health services until your comments on this post.

    It may be the case that the hard sell on prison expansion was necessary to get the rural voters to only vote it down on a 2:1 basis, but it was done in a way that made all of the fluffy hippies and civil libertarians vote against it, when these were the people who should have been campaigned to on a compassionate treatment platform. Whether they’re single-minded lock-em-up types or just totally unable to get their message across, I remain unimpressed with the CJCC.

    (less cynicism, more lamentation) It’s likely a product of my being ensconced up here in the ivory tower, but I’m genuinely surprised to hear you say that anybody was against the mental health parts of the proposal. I don’t think I’ve talked to anybody who opposed anything except the expansion part of the millage; I had assumed that everybody was in favor of things like the mental health services and renovating the courthouse, and that the only point of contention was the jail expansion. The problem with snowball surveying, I suppose…
       —Murph    Feb. 23 '05 - 09:17PM    #
  19. Yep, Murph, right on all counts.

    As to “last, best, only”—I guess before the election there was some notion that, if the proposal failed narrowly, a new and less ambitious one could be formulated. I don’t think anyone was prepared for such an overwhelming “no” vote. It would look pretty silly and pointless to propose anything else now.

    Yup, I heard from people who advocated a no-frills jail, with none of this coddling to jail inmates’ mental health. It looks like they got what they wanted.

    But probably the critical reason some townships voted “no” by 3:1 (Webster, Dexter, Lima, Augusta, Northfield), 4:1 (Sylvan), 5:1 (Manchester), 6:1 (Lyndon, Freedom), 9:1 (Sharon, Saline) or 11:1 (Bridgewater), was ongoing anger over the county’s decision, four years ago, to require townships to pay part of the cost of police services.

    When you lose by fifty or more points in a lot of the highest turnout precincts, that pretty much makes any millage impossible.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 23 '05 - 10:26PM    #
  20. Is there any hope for a separate “renovate the courthouse” millage? That’s one that I would heartily support. You might even get a backdoor clause about mental health for the jails in there, as long as you kept it short and didn’t play it up.
    I voted against this because I did not like the proposal as it stood, just like I did when I voted against the new school. I didn’t like the mailers I got, I didn’t like the people I saw speaking for it, I didn’t like the idea of pure expansionism. I see now that at least some of that distaste was illfounded, but I still feel like I was justified in voting against a proposal that I disagreed with.
    If the mailer hadn’t been all about how we needed to vote for this to expand the jail, and instead said that the jail was mandated and this was a vote for expanding jail alternatives while funding the jail, I probably would have voted for it.
       —js    Feb. 24 '05 - 05:22PM    #
  21. The “renovate the courthouse” millage went down in flames at the November 2000 election.

    No, I don’t think ANY kind of justice system millage is going to pass, period.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 24 '05 - 07:13PM    #
  22. Yeah sorry Murph I was comparing apples and oranges in the city and county expenditures to make a broad point rather than a specific budget analysis. To be precise, once there is no choice and things voters care about have to be cut to pay for a court-ordered jail expansion, assuming this does happen, then the situation may well change. I think taxpayers are far more likely to support these type of things after rather than before the crisis. People in the middle stay uninvolved until a crisis happens, say a court order to spend money right away, and then they are more persuadable.

    Also I am skeptical of any direct equation of the overwhelming electoral rejection with the countywide sentiment. As I stated above, for a variety of reasons I think stand-alone referenda that raise taxes generally mobilize the opposition most and for that reason there probably is a majority or near majority out there for this, done right and presented to the voters well, that could pass it. Larry I voted for you and respect your work, but I disagree with you on your analysis—the supporters did a terrible job of making the case, they incompetently managed to aliendate conservatives and progressives without mobilizing the center, and very few of the compelling points you have made in the post came through clearly in the public discourse. Like the school referendum, it might take several efforts for the county to figure out how to get this right.
       —Matt    Feb. 24 '05 - 08:37PM    #
  23. Yes, it took me ages to make head or tail of what the the proposal was proposing, and why. In the end I gave up and didn’t vote (unusual for me), as I supported parts of it and not others. The hard sell by CJCC (and the lack of facts that might have helped those of us who wanted to support it understand why) was very off-putting. Apparently they needed Larry to lead the educational aspect of it.

    While I’m with Murph on most of his list of where to go from here, I think a number of us are a bit too optimistic about the proportion of people who will support any taxes that don’t benefit them directly. I’d have to go with the cynical take there. What I would like to know is what would make rural county voters vote for a renovation/expansion proposal? Does anybody know if there was any market research done to determine what the priorities are of the county residents? Those results could have been combined with the ideas of mental health and county jail experts to come up with a proposal that both met the needs of the county AND had a good likelihood of passage. It seems to me that a little investment in some research would saved the CJCC lots of time and effort, and let them know if residents would vote for any jail/courthouse millage (especially considering the results of the ‘renovate the courthouse’ millage results last time), and if so what such a proposal would entail.
       —Lisa    Feb. 25 '05 - 04:55AM    #
  24. I have been a member of the CJCC only since January (when I inherited the “county clerk seat” on the body), and I had zero influence on the shaping of the proposal or the campaign on its behalf. Certainly I would have done it a lot differently.

    And once again, I apologize for not having had the time to make this case in my blog.

    But again, I don’t think even an optimal campaign could have passed this or any alternate version, whether the vote was held during the presidential election or as a stand-alone vote. (The CJCC did do some market research, and was slammed for wasting the money.)

    First, it is a truism that property tax increases never pass if there is any organized opposition.

    Knowing the folks who fought against the proposal, some of whom are very good friends of mine, I can’t imagine any circumstance in which they would have been willing to sit back let a proposal pass that increased incarceration the least bit.

    For example, Scio Township Trustee Chuck Ream will fight against any jail expansion whatsoever until marijuana is legalized in Michigan. He is a vigorous and effective advocate, and I can’t imagine progressives in this town abandoning him in the kind of overwhelming numbers it would take to pass a tax issue.

    Second, conservative rural areas which voted 80% or more against this didn’t do so out of a critique of specific points in the proposal. They voted “no” because they are still deeply angry at the county’s decision, four years ago, to require the townships to pay for police services.

    “Mobilizing the center” to pass any kind of tax increase is not an easy problem, especially if the money is to be spent on something few voters ever see.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 25 '05 - 10:22AM    #
  25. And I notice, in yesterday’s A2News article on the jail, somebody calling for the County to “stop subsidizing” police services to the Townships, saying the Townships should pony up for their own darn patrols, and the County shouldn’t be expected to pay for any of it. That’s certainly not going to make the Twps any happier.

    Ream I’m not so keen on. While I agree with his goals re: marijuana legalization, I found him a little over the top in his statements on the millage. If I weren’t already a raging anti-jail zealot, I probably would have been turned off by his claims that something approaching 100% of people in jail are there for marijuana possession.
       —Murph    Feb. 25 '05 - 02:12PM    #
  26. Larry is there any possibility of consolidating some of these police services with a countywide approach rather than inefficient township by township duplication of services that is the Michigan curse on almost all progressive efforts to do anything?
       —Matt    Feb. 25 '05 - 07:37PM    #
  27. Matt, as usual, it would be up to each individual township to decide what to do.

    There is some talk about smaller townships getting together to form police departments. But jurisdictions which already have police departments will probably be reluctant to join with others and give up control.

    As Murph mentioned, most likely the townships will be losing subsidized coverage from the county sheriff; and the state police are not prepared to step in. So the townships that currently use the sheriff’s department will have to do something—either pay 100% of the cost of sheriff deputies, or set up their own departments.

    Part of the goal of the deal in 2000 was to avoid multiplication of police agencies. But given the shortage of resources and the ongoing bad feelings, I think that goal is likely to be abandoned.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Feb. 25 '05 - 08:33PM    #