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Macomb County postpones millage request for new jail due to COVID-19

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Macomb County is putting plans to build a new jail—and ask voters to fund it—on hold because of COVID-19.

Plans to either renovate the jail or build a new one have been in the works for years. County officials say the current facility is outdated, and dangerous for both inmates and staff.

The county had tentatively planned to put a roughly $300 million millage proposal on the August ballot. That was scaled back from an initial $371 million request.

In a statement, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said surging unemployment and the unprecedented economic damage caused by COVID-19 forced the county to change course.

“It is our hope that after this pandemic passes, our local economy will rebound quickly,” Hackel said. “Until that time, it would be terribly insensitive to ask our residents for a tax increase when so many are struggling to pay for the basics.”

The county said its need for new jail space has also diminished. It reports that as of last week, the inmate population had dropped under 500 for the first time in more than 30 years.

The county said that reduction “is due to a number of factors, including steps taken to find alternatives to incarceration and measures related to reducing the spread of COVID-19.”

The once-chronically overcrowded jail, which can house up to 1,238 inmates, has only had around 800-900 inmates for the past 18 months, according to Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham. The county’s new jail plan called for 1,034 beds.

Since COVID-19 hit, courts have been drastically reducing bonds, cutting the numbers even further, Wickersham said.

Wickersham said the county will wait until the pandemic passes to reassess its plans for a new facility. “We’ll see how high [inmate population] will go after this is done, and whether our original plan will fit or if we’ll have to rework it,” Wickersham said.

“A lot of good work was accomplished during the study phase. This includes identifying several opportunities for reforming the criminal justice system, using best practices from across the nation.”

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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