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Lock 'em up and throw away the key. That’ll teach them. Right? Wrong. Many citizens hold a misconception that law enforcement want lots of people locked up. We don’t.

Sheriffs operate the jails, and we do lots of good work to protect our communities and provide safe custody for those detained. But we don’t always have control over who comes to the jail and how long they stay. Before the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration started uncovering data that explain the trends in county jail incarceration, the state was imposing policies on counties without knowing whether or not they were effective for public safety.

Task force presentations reveal that over the last 30 years, the Michigan jail population has nearly tripled, while crime has dropped to 50-year lows. And there is faster and more significant jail growth in rural parts of the state, where fewer jail alternatives and mental health resources exist. In fact, screenings and interviews estimate that a third of Michigan jail inmates have serious mental illness or psychological distress.

Every sheriff in the state of Michigan is struggling with mental health clients within their facilities. Every single one. But the sheriffs cannot find enough beds in mental health facilities to treat these people. When there is nowhere else to go, the answer is jail. The problem is that jails are not hospitals.

We can’t continue to put people behind bars for every type of nuisance, debt or law violation and expect them to be successful in the community after they leave jail, especially when a mental illness was involved in their offending.

We should invest in diversion programs that provide community programming and treatment, rather than months in jails that aren’t equipped to address behavioral health disorders. The reality is that nearly all the people locked up return to their communities, so using jail as our primary response to mental illness or minor violations is dangerously shortsighted.

Decades of policies and practices have fed our incarceration problem, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and threatening rather than protecting public safety. If our jail beds were used for a more targeted population, we could expand jail alternatives and actually reduce victimization by steering former offenders away from further criminal behavior.

As executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, I urge the task force to introduce innovative policies that limit unnecessary incarceration while still holding offenders accountable, keeping our communities safe. We must ask ourselves, are we investing in long-term public safety, or merely paying for people to do time?

Blaine Koops is the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, retired sheriff of Allegan County, and a founding member of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

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