Prosecutor candidates talk at forum

HOUGHTON – Houghton County’s candidates for prosecutor both spoke at Thursday night’s League of Women Voters forum for contested races in the county. The forum also included candidates for sheriff and the county board.

Prosecutor Michael Makinen, who is running as a Democrat, is seeking re-election against former Prosecutor Douglas Edwards, who is running as an independent.

Makinen said since 2009, he has restructured the prosecutor’s office, doubling the grant money the office receives without adding staff.

Makinen also touted the office’s partnerships in new programs, including with the district court on the treatment court for non-violent drug and alcohol offenders, and with the circuit court to develop an indigent defense plan ahead of a state requirement.

“My office policy has been as to each and every case to evaluate all factors, the evidence, victim’s rights, punishment, rehabilitation, all of those things, to get the best result on each and every case,” he said.

Edwards said he is running to restore public confidence in the prosecutor’s office. He cited the close vote in Makinen’s last election in 2012.

As prosecutor, Edwards said, he had been a strong advocate for victims. If elected again, Edwards said, his top priorities would be holding defendants accountable and defending victims to the end.

“When I was prosecutor, over 98 percent of all defendants charged were held accountable,” he said. “I believe you have to hold them accountable. If you don’t, as human nature is, they’ll do it again and again.”

Makinen said he would work to keep the office functioning at the same high level and keep the office fiscally sound. Every case needs to be individually evaluated, he said.

“You simply cannot say we are just helping victims,” he said. “I had one where one victim wanted to send a guy to prison. The other just wanted to give him county jail time. You have to balance everything.”

Describing his philosophy of the job, Makinen said merely punishing people isn’t enough to reduce crime, pointing to the rehabilitation successes of the treatment court.

“We send some people to prison because they have made it clear they’re not going to be rehabilitated, but you have to balance everything,” he said.

Both candidates said plea bargaining was essential to the job. With 150 felony cases a year, Makinen said, taking each of them to trial would require two more attorneys in the office.

“With the guidelines that exist and the options that are available, you can get a just result without having to go through trial,” he said.

Edwards said he had kept the victims involved in the plea bargaining process, he had never had a problem.

“What I’ve seen over the years is victims are very forgiving,” he said. “Give them a little time, they’re more willing to forgive than the general public.”

Edwards decried rumors that he planned to fire the current staff of the prosecutor’s office if elected.

“I don’t believe in firing anybody,” he said. “I didn’t do it when I first got in office, and i’m not going to do it now. You just don’t do that. You rely on that office support.”

The candidates also addressed the problem of a new county jail and district court office. Voters most recently rejected a millage for a combined jail, sheriff’s office and district court in 2010.

“It would be great if we all could reach in our pocketbook and pay for a new jail and a new district court, but that’s not possible, so we have to work within our county budget and work with what we have until things change,” Edwards said.

For now, the district court facilities are “deficient, but adequate,” Makinen said. The more pressing problem, he said, is the jail. One stopgap solution might be negotiating with other counties to use their jail space. A new proposal in the state legislature would require separate housing for inmates between 17 and 22 years old, which Makinen said would exacerbate the space crunch.

“That’s not going to work in our county with the number of problems between 17 and 22,” he said.