Reader opposes jail millage renewal.

August 2, 2018

Reader opposes jail millage renewal.

Letter to the editor by Paul Deller, Scottville

Letters to the editor are the opinion of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Media Group 31, LLC, owner of Mason County Press. 

If you were in charge of the Mason County budget, how would you spend it?  What would you buy with your $13 million this year?  What would do the most good?  Would you fix the roads?  Build a new school?  Incentivize business development?  Give everyone a tax cut?  Now let’s look at what our tax dollars are actually spent on.  The second most expensive line item in the Mason County annual budget, right behind the Sheriff’s office, is the jail, which consumes $1.6 million dollars a year to hold an average of 65 people per day behind bars, and accounts for 12% of the county’s total resources.  I believe that this budget, specifically the outrageously high spending on the jail, fails to reflect common sense, does not reflect our values and priorities, and squanders scarce capital.

On August 72018, the taxpayers of Mason County will be asked to vote on whether or not to approve a property tax renewal of 0.58 mills to fund county jail operations, which if approved will raise approximately $1.1 million per year over the next 10 years for a total of $10.9 million.  The full language of the proposal as it will appear on the ballot is below:

“This proposal will allow the county to levy millage to pay for operating expenses related to the 1997 Jail Expansion.

Shall the limitation upon the total amount of general ad valorem taxes which may be assessed against real and tangible personal property in the County of Mason, Michigan be increased by up to 0.58 mills ($0.58 per $1,000) on the taxable valuation of such property, as finally equalized, for a period of ten (10) years 2018 through 2027, inclusive, for the purpose of paying the additional operating expenses related to the 1997 Jail Expansion, which increase will raise an estimated $1,090,676 in 2018.”

The jail expansion referenced in the proposal was a $3.8 million dollar project which increased capacity at the Mason County Jail from 45 beds to 104.  The jail’s annual budget mostly pays for 17 corrections officers and a kitchen staff of 3, utilities, and medical care for inmates.  As a taxpayer, I am concerned that we are spending too much money on our jail at the expense of other priorities. 

I calculate it costs the county $24,615 per year to jail an inmate.  This is a rough number (that likely underestimates the actual cost) obtained by dividing the annual jail budget by the average number of daily inmates.  A Freedom of Information Act request was returned saying the county doesn’t have an estimate of their own broken down per prisoner, so let’s work with this number for now.  To give this figure some perspective, Mason County Central schools spend around $10,000 per student per year, $2,500 below the national average of $12,500 (note: the school budget is separate from the county budget and determined by each district, but I think the comparison is still worthwhile).  The average salary of a teacher in Mason County is $57,000, which means that instead of paying $1.1 million per year for the jail, we could instead afford to hire an additional 19 teachers!  This would go a long ways towards bringing the current ratio of students to teachers down from 22:1 closer to the Michigan average of 18:1.  A widely cited 2003 study found that completing high school “significantly reduces criminal activity.”  Prevention is a smarter and more cost effective way to address one of the root problems of criminality, as opposed to relying on jail to deter crime.  The National Institute of Justice finds that “prison sentences are unlikely to deter future crime.”  Criminals don’t think they will get caught, so no matter what the consequence is, most crooks believe it will never happen to them.  As another example, the starting salary for an assistant county prosecutor is $54,000 per year and the average salary of a firefighter in Michigan is $44,590.  Wouldn’t our county be a better place with more teachers, firefighters, and even lawyers instead of prison?      

I encourage our Mason County Prosecuting Attorney Paul R. Spaniola, who has held this post for almost ten years and is the county’s top law enforcement official, to increase the use of alternatives to jail for nonviolent crimes, instead of adhering predominately to state sentencing guidelines as he has previously done.  Examples include community service, suspended sentences in lieu of drug treatment, probation, house arrest, attending lectures given by victims of crime, publicly speaking about their criminality, diversion programs, fines, and weekend jail time.  Use of these methods in conjunction with an ankle bracelet to track and monitor nonviolent offenders is a cheaper alternative to jail.  Other district attorneys around the country are demanding that their prosecutors disclose and justify the cost of jailing the guilty during sentencing to help the government evaluate if public money is best spent on punishment or some other need.  This is a common sense practice that should be implemented immediately.  If our prosecuting attorney believes that the best metric for success is to lock up as many people as he can for as long as he can, then we all suffer due to the high cost of imprisonment and the economic opportunity cost that entails.  This will require a study to more precisely determine the cost of incarceration and the savings if alternatives are implemented, and should be undertaken immediately to better inform our elected decision makers.  Perhaps some enterprising students at the community college who need a topic for a paper could be enlisted.

The views of our Prosecuting Attorney matter.  The vast majority of cases are decided before they ever go to court and very few cases actually go to trial.  Mr. Spaniola decides what the priorities of his office will be, what charges to bring, and what deals to offer.  The fact is that we imprison way too many people.  The United States has 4.4% of the world’s population, but houses 22% of the world’s prisoners.  We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  It is ironic that despite the slogan of being the “land of the free,” we are actually the least free nation on earth, with over 2.2 million people living behind bars, 34% more the next closest country (China), despite having victimization rates in line with similar countries.  The United States has an incarceration rate of 698 per 100,000 people, three times higher than European rates, and half of the 222 countries on the World Prison Population List put out by the International Center for Prison Studies had rates below 150.    

A number of people in jail are there simply because they couldn’t afford bail.  Bail is the punishment you get whether or not you were guilty of a crime.  After being accused of a crime, without being found guilty, people are forced to await their date in court behind bars with people who have been convicted due to being poor, despite our system’s belief that we are innocent until proven guilty.  The Federal Reserve recently found that 40% of Americans can’t afford to pay a $400 emergency expense without borrowing money or selling belongings, so there are huge numbers of people who are not able to afford bail.  It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which a person is falsely accused, is unable to buy their freedom, and loses their job because they are unable to show up to work while awaiting trial.  After being acquitted, this person might fall into debt while looking for another job.  Their low credit score from their lack of income prevents them from getting a loan, and we as a community have just set the conditions to create a criminal if they turn to irreputable sources of loans or criminality to make ends meet.  Or perhaps this person who couldn’t post bail is a parent, and they are not able to be home with their child while awaiting trial.  Many couples work two jobs, so the child now has a lot of unsupervised time to themselves, which can also lead to mischief if they fall into the wrong crowd.  The point is that the policy of cash bail to avoid jail while presumed innocent and awaiting trial has the potential to create more criminals and more harm than good, a consequence that affects all of us.  Unfortunately the county was not able to tell me how many people were jailed because they could not post bail or how long this population spent in jail last year, but they did know that 29% of released inmates were unable to pay their room and board bill of $35 per day within 30 days (average bill = $630, above the $400 mentioned earlier) and were turned over to collections, so we can get an idea of what the financial standing of this population looks like.  I encourage our county to start tracking this population.          

Taxes are a zero sum game; the more we spend on one thing, the less there is to spend on another.  As a county, I think we need to take a hard look at where our priorities lie.  This heap of money could be better spent on any of a number of other priorities, or better left in the pockets of our people.  For example, public improvement was only allocated $395,000 this year.  County maintenance is making do with $150,000.  Parks and recreation got a measly $3,000.  Cutting the average daily jail population by 10% (6 people per day) could save $147,000 (depending on fixed and variable cost per prisoner).  The jail is one of the most expensive proposals on the ballot this year, twice as much as what the police are asking for and twice what the senior citizen center needs.    Surely our community would be a better place if more was spent on items such as these. 

I inquired about how the county would handle a failure to pass the jail proposal.  A response to my Freedom of Information Act request stated that “The Mason County Board of Commissioners has not decided if the jail operations would be cut or if they would eliminate other county services if the millage request fails.”

Where we actually spend our money shows what our real priorities are.  I am a strong supporter of law and order, and look forward to voting yes on the proposal to support police training and equipment.  Failure to reform how our county punishes nonviolent criminal acts has a steep cost, a cost that this county has not bothered to calculate.  Please join me in August in sending a message to our elected officials that we want to spend our hard earned tax dollars on things that improve the lives of our people.  Tell them that we are against mass incarceration, against cash bail, and against prison time while presumed innocent for nonviolent infractions.  Cast your vote to show that you are for prevention over punishment, and for keeping families together unless proven guilty.    

– Paul Deller, Scottville

Area Churches