Ballot rejection won’t stop jail overcrowding

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Voters fill out ballots early Tuesday afternoon at the Hancock Fire Hall, where Second Precinct ballots were cast.

HOUGHTON — The quest to add more beds to the Houghton County Jail will continue.

By a 6,941-6,779 margin (50.6 percent to 49.4 percent), voters rejected an $11 million, 20-year millage proposal to build a jail addition behind the Houghton County Courthouse.

The addition would have brought the county’s capacity to close to 90 people. The county work camp would have been relocated to the current jail, which would have been converted to a dormitory system.

County Board members proposed the jail addition as a lower-cost alternative for meeting the county’s needs.

Previous millage proposals for standalone facilities were defeated in 2000 and 2010.

The 28-bed jail has been consistently over capacity, with some daily populations reaching into the 40s.

Officials have worried about the potential for a civil rights lawsuit by an inmate prompting federally mandated improvements. Awards for civil rights violations carry treble damages, meaning a court can triple the amount of the actual/compensatory damages to be awarded to a prevailing plaintiff.

Voters approved the millage for the current jail, opened in 1963, after a court order caused the previous jail to be shut down.

Public input was not sought in the formation of the addition proposal, which was criticized by groups such as the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country as well as several new board candidates.

Board Chairman Al Koskela said he didn’t know what the county will do.

“If people don’t want it, I guess we’ll have to start shipping them out,” he said. “With marijuana (Proposal 1) passing, there’ll be more of that around. That’ll be a mess.”

Commissioner-elect Roy Britz said he is open to conversations about options for the jail.

“I think we have to reach out to the community to find out what people really want and what they’ll support, and go forward from there,” he said.

Commissioner Gretchen Janssen thought the first step should be input from county residents.

“I’d like to see perhaps focus groups in the different areas of the county to get an idea of what it would take to get a jail millage passed,” she said.