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Just about all of us know someone who’s spent a night in county jail. Michigan county jails process hundreds of thousands of people every year, often young people picked up by police for one reason or another. Jail has a less serious population than state prison — usually people awaiting trial or serving out penalties for minor crimes. More and more, those coming to jail are people with mental illnesses and those too poor to pay various fines and fees. 

In Otsego County, our jail is constantly overcrowded, demanding more officers in the facility than we have on the street. In our small town, with our equally small tax base, we spend more than a million dollars a year on the jail. Even during the recession, when counties like ours had to make tough decisions about funding priorities, it was nearly impossible to spend less on the jail, because of state laws governing who goes to jail and how long they stay. 

That’s why I’m glad to see state leaders elevate jails as a priority issue and join with the Michigan Association of Counties in forming a Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration. 

At its first meeting, the Task Force found that Michigan taxpayers sink nearly half a billion dollars each year into county jails — almost three times what they spend on community and economic development at the county level. They found that, despite decades of falling crime, our county jail populations have remained stubbornly high. This newly formed task force, comprised of county and state officials, practitioners and members of the public, will take a comprehensive look at the state laws driving jail crowding. By January, it will hand over its findings and recommendations for safely reducing local incarceration across our 83 counties.

In the last several years, counties have called out when state burdens have been shifted onto local taxpayers, including some criminal justice reforms. But this jails project is different. It’s designed to ease the burden on counties and to generate smart reforms that free up local dollars for direct investment in our communities. We share responsibility for this half-a-billion-dollar problem, and I believe we’re on course to solve it together.

Ken Borton is president of the Michigan Association of Counties and chairs the Otsego County Board of Commissioners.

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