People could pay more for overcrowded jails: Judge

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette 97th District Court Judge Mark Wisti addresses the need for a new jail at Tuesday’s Houghton County Board meeting.

HOUGHTON — A state act could give county judiciary and law enforcement officials powers to act to reduce overcrowding at the Houghton County Jail, 97th District Court Judge Mark Wisti said at Tuesday’s County Board meeting.

In recent weeks, as many as 42 inmates have been lodged into the 28-person Houghton County Jail.

Wisti said he had gotten phone calls from the jail administrator and undersheriff about what could be done to get certain prisoners out of the jail to alleviate crowding. Wisti checked with the State Court Administrator’s Office to make sure the communications were ethical; he was told the communications were in-bounds.

Wisti said judges could be granted additional powers through the County Jail Overcrowding State of Emergency Act. If the jail population exceeds 100 percent of the design capacity, the act allows the county sheriff to declare a state of emergency, which would enable judges, prosecutors and the sheriff to take extra steps to reduce overcrowding. Measures include judicial review for quick release, weekend arraignments and the use of substance abuse programs such as the county’s existing treatment court.

Wisti said as far as he knew, the act either had not been used or used only rarely.

“In reviewing it, it appears at least on my end of it, we’re doing a lot of this anyway,” he said.

The larger problem, he said, is that the jail is outmoded. Houghton County voters have rejected previous bond proposals to build a new jail, most recently in 2010.

The situation would be even more dire without the treatment court, which diverts drug and alcohol offenders to treatment instead of jail, Wisti said. There are 40 to 50 people in the treatment court at a given time, who before would probably have served an average of 60 days in jail, Wisti said.

The condition of the jail also leaves the county vulnerable to a suit under the violation of the “cruel of and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment, Wisti said. It’s unlikely to happen, due to the lack of attorneys in the U.P. with the background to bring such a suit.

“If you do get into that situation, it’s Katy bar the door,” he said. If the county lost the suit, it would be liable for the other side’s attorney’s fees, which could run $2 to $3 million.

“Put that aside, do we want a jail where they’re violating people’s civil rights?” Wisti said. “Is that the kind of county we are?”

There could also be a suit brought in state court demanding a new jail, which was done in Wayne County in the 1960s, Wisti said.

Most of the inmates are non-violent and there for drug/alcohol or mental illness. The usual practice is to put them in jail for 10 days, then put them on a drug that will block opiates. With the overcrowding, the county hasn’t been able to do that, Wisti said.

“We’re not going to let somebody loose that we think is a clear and present danger, but there are people you’re sitting on the fence on,” he said.