Study to start new jail process again

HOUGHTON – The Houghton County Board of Commissioners approved a bid for a feasibility study regarding constructing a new jail behind the courthouse.

U.P. Engineers & Architects submitted a $3,900 bid to investigate whether a new jail could be built on the space being used by the south parking deck and courtyard.

The study will assume a three-story building with 60 to 70 beds. The sheriff’s office would operate out of the building, as might some court functions. The existing jail would be fully vacated in the scenario.

Project architect Karin Cooper said it’s a preliminary look at options.

“This scope of work is really just to see if the spaces that are needed by the sheriff’s department will even fit in the space,” she said. “We may go down the road and find out that it’s not going to fit that way, and maybe it’ll be 50 beds, or maybe it’ll be more. Until somebody starts to put pen on paper, we don’t know what it’s going to be.”

Board Chair Albert Koskela and Commissioners Anton Pintar and Tim Palosaari voted to accept the bid; Commissioners Scott Ala and Tom Tikkanen voted against it.

Houghton County voters have already rejected several proposals for a new jail; in 2010, a $15 million, 110-bed facility that would also have included the sheriff’s department and district court was voted down by a 3-to-1 margin.

Pintar said the scenario was only one of several the board would consider.

“Having been through a millage fight, someplace along the way, someone’s going to raise the question ‘Did you look at this scenario?’ – across the street, someplace else in the city of Houghton, Camp Kitwen,” he said. “And so we’ve got to do this, as just the first step in looking towards building a new jail.”

Ala said it was too soon to bring up the issue again, saying it’s traditionally at least a five-year wait before another millage makes it to the ballot. He also suggested the board see what effects the impending drug court would have on inmate population at the jail. The county is pursuing a $50,000 grant to set up the court, which would would offer non-violent substance abuse defendants the option of going through treatment instead of the usual court process.

Ala said Leelanau County had also built a new extensive jail facility, then seen its inmate population decline after introducing the drug court.

“That would be what I would see, somebody coming up and asking me, ‘Do you even know what you’re doing? You want a jail at 60-70 beds, so you can put in a court, so you don’t use the beds,'” he said.

Sheriff Brian McLean said the jail system had an average population of 41 in 2012, nearly all of which were in the county jail.

Without action to take care of the jail, McLean said, the county is leaving itself open to a lawsuit over “deliberate indifference.” The problems with the jail have been documented in studies going back to the 1980s, he said.

“I understand we were defeated each and every time, and I don’t know what the proper strategy is or isn’t going to be, but we have to try,” he said. “Because if we just don’t address the problem at all, there’s a documented problem.”

McLean said he wasn’t sure how much the drug court would reduce numbers. The county had already been aggressive in community corrections, which has reduced crowding at the jail, he said. Last year, Dickinson County averaged 90 inmates, despite having 10,000 fewer people.

Jail administrator Kevin Coppo said a piecemeal approach to renovating the jail wouldn’t be effective, since the jail would then be subject to updated Department of Corrections requirements.

“If we add any beds to the current facility, we’re mandated to put sprinkler systems and revamp the whole jail anyway,” he said.