More county jails seek to keep inmates from returning

By Jingjing Nie
Capital News Service

LANSING – More Michigan counties are offering programs to keep inmates from returning to jail.

Similar to programs in place at state prisons, the local programs teach skills that give a better chance to jail inmates who serve much shorter sentences than those in prison, said Blaine Koops, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Each program is unique and depends on the demographics and the size of the jail, Koops said.

Kent County is in the sixth year of a re-entry program piloted with the National Institute of Corrections, based in Washington, D.C.

It offers classes on avoiding substance abuse, job readiness, high school equivalency completion, job readiness training,social skills and problem solving, said Rob Steele, the inmate program coordinator.

The county re-entry programs are designed to eliminate the short-term repeat offenders.

Jails have frequent flyers, said Capt. Klint Thorne, who oversees facility operations for Kent County. “It is like a revolving door. We will have the same problem with same people again.”

“Frequent flyers” usually started in the criminal justice system at a young age and have been arrested several times, Thorne said. The program targets them and other high-risk people serving sentences to ensure there is enough time to have an impact, he said.

Finding funding for such programs is difficult, Thorne said. The department often partners with local groups.

“It is important to have support from the local community — financial support and time commitment to make this work,” Thorne said. “I think this should be a nationwide program, but I understand there is some difficulty in counties.”

The Allegan County Correctional Facility started a similar program in 2009, said Sgt. John Sexton of the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department.

It allows people to live in one dorm as study buddies, he said. They have two life skills classes a day, five days a week. The coursework includes job skills, budgeting, addiction recovery, parenting and Bible study.

Inmates can also choose weekend workshops, worship services, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and high school equivalency classes.

The program lasts 10 weeks, Sexton said. Eighteen people graduated this year.

“Some students actually asked the judge if they can stay until the class is over,” Sexton said.

Most of the students don’t return to jail, Sexton said. “Some of them got back, but mostly for a smaller crime like violation of parole. They rarely come back for the same level crime or a more severe one.”

And the program has supporters.  

“Judges, probation officers, sheriffs and a lot people from law enforcement are all invited to the graduation,” he said.

The program was so successful that the county set up a women’s program. The first students graduated in September 2016.

It offers the same classes but also offers individual counseling with a therapist.

Forgotten Man Ministries works in similar programs with 33 county jails across the state, said Sarah Farkas, the group’s lead chaplain. It offers religious classes, worship services and individual counseling.

It is possible for people to change their lives, she said.

“When I first started in the program about two and a half years ago, it broke my heart to see how people are looking at the inmate,” she said. “I feel like inmates are always marginalized in a lot of ways.

“I had a loved one who was incarcerated once, so I understand the system and I see society always associated shame with it,” Farkas said. “This is a successful program, it empowers them and empowers their thinking process.”

Inmates in jail ministries are open and willing to share their stories, which is not often seen in everyday life, she said.

Life skills programs are emerging in county jails but not yet widely used, Koops said.

“I’d like to see it not only statewide, it should be a nationwide program,” he said.

Proposed bills could undo parental education requirement for immunization waivers

By Kaley Fech
Capital News Service

LANSING — Parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids could skip an education session designed to teach them a the benefits of vaccines and the risks of disease, under legislation proposed by two Republican lawmakers.

A 2014 rule requires parents to first learn about vaccines from a county health department to get an immunization waiver, , according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The rule was put in place by a joint committee of the House and Senate, not the entire Legislature.

Michigan allows immunization waivers for medical, religious and philosophical reasons. Medical waivers are completed by a physician.The education requirement pertains only to parents claiming religious and philosophical reasons.

Michigan had the sixth-highest waiver rate for kindergarteners in the country in 2014-15, according to the state health agency. The state moved to 11th place after the educational requirement was put in place.

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen a 33 percent decrease in waivers,” said Bob Swanson, director of the Health and Human Services division of immunizations.

Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, and Rep. Jeff Noble, R-Plymouth, introduced bills earleir this year to undo the education requirements.

One of the problems with the administrative rule is it contradicts state law, Barrett testified at at House Education Reform Committee.

“Michigan law grants parents the right to waive any and all vaccines for their children for medical, philosophical or religious reasons,” he said. “That law remains on the books today.”

The Department of Health and Human Services opposes the bills.

“From a public health standpoint, vaccines are very important,” Swanson said.

Supporters of the repeal say the issue is about parental rights

“We support the right for parents to choose if their kids are vaccinated,” said Beth Bechtel, a volunteer with Michigan for Vaccine Choice. “As a group, we are not for or against vaccines. We simply believe parents should be able to choose.”

Noble testified that parents and not government should be encouraged to make wise decisions.

State health authorities note that the education requirement does not take away a parent’s rights.

“The education informs parents of the benefits of being vaccinated and the risks of diseases, but afterward they still have the right to choose to sign a waiver,” Swanson said.

Another criticism by opponents is that the requirement was approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rule instead of the entire Legislature.

“If the Department of Health and Human Services wanted to change the rules, they should have written up bills,” Bechtel said.

Five vaccines are required for kindergarten school entry, according to the state health agency. That includes vaccines for chickenpox; polio; measles, mumps and rubella; diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; and hepatitis B.

Some parents are opposed to only certain vaccines due to religious or philosophical beliefs, Bechtel said. The most common one is for chickenpox.

Only about 3 percent of children in the United States are completely unvaccinated, according to officials.

Swanson said ending the education requirement would make waiver rates go back up and increase the risk of disease.

“The more people who are susceptible, the higher the risk for outbreak,” he said.

As of June 30, Houghton County had the highest waiver rate at 13.5 percent. Luce County had the lowest at 0.6 percent, according to Health and Human Services.

When 90 to 95 percent of a community is protected, it is almost impossible for vaccine- preventable diseases to spread, according to health officials administering the state’s “I vaccinate” campaign. As that number decreases, the risk of outbreak increases.  

“A number of preventable disease outbreaks have occurred in Michigan as well as other spots in the U.S. due to low vaccination rates,” said Angela Minicuci, the communications director for the department.

A current example is a hepatitis A outbreak among adults in Southeast Michigan, Swanson said.

“We haven’t seen it in a lot of kids because they’ve been vaccinated,” he said. “But most adults were never vaccinated against the virus, making them susceptible.”

State health authorities say as many people as possible should be vaccinated to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, such as pregnant women, babies, the elderly and ones who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“Vaccines are the best protection against diseases,” Swanson said.

The bills are in the House Committee on Education Reform.

Counties could pay informants more, if bill becomes law

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Criminal informants in Michigan could be in for a larger payday if a recently introduced bipartisan bill increases the limit on payouts by 10 times.

The  bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, and 17 co-sponsors who say a larger reward amount could make witnesses to crimes more willing to come forward. Three co-sponsors are Republican.

Currently the maximum amount that could be given to an informant is $2,000, and it comes from a county’s general fund. This legislation would increase the limit to $20,000. There is no particular reason for the proposed limit, Cochran said, although it seemed to be a figure counties could afford.

As for why there is any limit, Cochran said it was precedent. The law sets the limit at $2,000. However, Cochran said he would be open to an amendment to the bill to get rid of the limit and allow counties to figure it out themselves.

“The idea being the reward would be a little more substantial and possibly someone would come forward with information,” Cochran said.

A former sheriff approached him about increasing the reward for police informants after one of his deputies died while chasing a suspect, Cochran said. No witnesses to the crash came forward, and he thought a greater incentive might have made a difference.

“He felt very strongly in working with the Sheriffs’ Association that they would like to see this raised to $20,000,” Cochran said.

The money would be controlled by county commissioners and be doled out of the county general fund. Each county would select how much to reward witnesses up to that amount, Cochran said.

“This is permissive. It doesn’t require the county to put forth that much reward but it could be up to $20,000,” Cochran said. “Obviously they have to work within their budget constraints, but this allows for local control.”

Cochran said he has the backing of the Ingham County Sheriffs’ Department and the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Typically, the money doled out to criminal informants goes to persons informing on drug dealers or those involved in racketeering, said Blaine Koops, the executive director of the Association.

Rewards for criminal informants typically do work, he said. The money goes to those who divulge information leading to arrests or convictions of people for high- level felonies.

“The problem is, money is a great motivator,” Koops said.

Co-sponsors are: John Chirkun, D-Roseville; Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor; Pam Faris, D-Clio; Tim Sneller, D-Burton; Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale; Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park; Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti; Scott Dianda, D-Calumet; Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon; Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township; David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids; Brian Elder, D-Bay City; Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township; Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township; Leslie Love, D-Detroit; Andy Schor, D-Lansing; and Patrick Green, D-Warren.

The bill was referred to the Law and Justice Committee, where Cochran says his Republican colleagues said they felt optimistic about getting the bill pushed through for a hearing.

Police cite fewer speeders, costing counties patrol dollars

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Speeding might be less risky  for drivers in Michigan as police officers are issuing fewer citations annually.

But that drop is costing county sheriffs’ departments thousands of dollars each year for patrolling the state’s back roads and to investigate crashes.

The program, known as secondary road patrol, is a state program of traffic enforcement and crash investigation on non-main roads in the counties, including parts of national and state parks.

It was funded solely by state grant general fund from 1979 to 1992. But now it is self-funded by the surcharge added to fines generated by traffic citations issued by all police. Partial allocation from the general fund continued from 1992 until 2003 when it  was completely eliminated

The average number of  citations issued per deputy has decreased from 582 in 2006 to 444 in 2016, according to a report by Michigan’s Office of Highway Safety Planning.. That resulted in a loss of nearly $3 million to the secondary road patrol program during the past 10 years.

“The two are intertwined,” said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. “The number of citations equals the amount revenue that’s generated.”

There may be multiple reasons for the decrease in citations, Koops said. But more compassionate officers may be among them.

“Part of it is the whole demeanor of the new police officers,” Koops said. “Number one is more compassionate police officers as far as looking at an individual and their individual circumstances but also their looking at their job differently.”

Koops said more officers are looking at their jobs as more community-based as the people they serve are also the people they live among.

Other reasons for the decrease in citations  have to do with changing road environments. Barriers dividing the freeways have made it more difficult for officers to catch violators.

“If they’re tracking opposite direction traffic, they cannot go through the median to track that vehicle,” Koops said. “If indeed they’re going to track that vehicle, they have to go to the next emergency exchange in the middle of the road which can be several miles away.”

Officers are also more cognizant of being filmed or having to use body cameras which may make them less likely to ticket speeders.

The decrease in funding has led also to a decrease in secondary road patrol deputies funded through the program, taking officers off the road. At the program’s’ inception in 1979, 287 officers were funded by the secondary road patrol funds. Now approximately 126 officers are funded through the program.

That shifted costs to local government. The number of county-funded officers has increased from 1,123 in 1979 to approximately 2,184 in 2016.

“There’s just not enough money to put the deputies on the road,” Koops said. “That money is spent really as far as a funding source to augment the general fund that a county puts into traffic enforcement.”

Eighty-eight percent of the program’s expenditures, or about $11.8 million,  are spent on personnel costs. Each deputy costs approximately $97,258.04 including salary, fringes, vehicles and equipment.

The decrease in funds to the program has no quick solution,  Koops said.

“Truthfully, right now there is no solution,” he said.

Decline in boat registrations creating a lack of funding for marine patrols

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — Over the past decade, state funding for the marine divisions of sheriffs’ offices in Michigan has dwindled with the decline in the number of registered boats.

At the same time, the number of unregistered canoes and kayaks has increased, leading to calls for the owners of those craft to also be required to pay the registration fees that support rescues and other boating programs

“We’ve experienced a dramatic decrease in funding,” said Mackinac County Sheriff Scott Strait. “It’s roughly one-third of what it was 10 years ago.”  

Marine divisions offer boater safety classes, patrol waterways and conduct search-and- rescue missions on the water, including areas of the Great Lakes.

The  Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers Marine Safety grants to county sheriff departments for marine patrol divisions. The grant money comes from boat registration fees.

However, a decline in registered boats has led to a decrease in the grant money vailable, and sheriffs’ offices across the state are feeling the effects, said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

In 2007, there were 827,869 registered boats in Michigan. By 2012, there were only 800,793. Last year that number dropped to 790,425, according to the DNR.

The amount available for Marine Safety grants is decreasing with the decline in registered boats. In 2007, it  was about $3.5 million. In 2012, it fell to about $2.8 million.  In 2016, it was about $2.2 million, according to the DNR.

“Funding here is roughly half of what it was when I first started,” said Sgt. Eric Decker, from the Marquette County special operations division. “Ten to 15 years ago, grant money was somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000. It’s now down to between $17,000 and $20,000.”

In the past, the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office used funds from the DNR grant to purchase new equipment, but he said the lack of funding is now forcing the county to make some tough decisions.

“We haven’t been able to replace equipment,” Decker said. “We have an aging boat, but we haven’t been able to replace it because grant money has gone down. It’s now looking like the county will purchase the boat and will put off getting a new patrol car for another year.”

An increasing problem counties are seeing is the number of calls they receive from canoers and kayakers in distress.

“We’re seeing major issues with kayaks,” said Kelly Hanson, the Huron County dheriff. “We’ve been called out over 70 times this year for kayak rescues.”

In Michigan, canoes and kayaks do not have to be registered. When users call for help, they are using marine division resources without contributing to the funding, Strait said.

Strait said his office is receiving a growing number of calls from kayakers, especially in the Straits of Mackinac. Deckersaid Marquette County is also getting more calls involving kayakers in trouble.

All three sheriffs say that  requiring canoes and kayaks to be registered would improve the funding situation.

They’re not alone.

“This is something we’ve wanted to see happen for years,” said Mark Miltner, vice president of Michigan Association of Paddlesport Providers and owner of Pine River Paddlesports Center in Wellston, about halfway between Manistee and Cadillac.

“The number of people who own personal crafts is increasing, and they’re not always experienced,” he said. “Sheriff marine divisions are getting called out more and more to do search and rescues.”

Decker said the drop in funding  means fewer deputies on the water.

It’s a concern that Hanson shares.

“At one time we had a marine patrol seven days a week,” he said. “Now we just have a weekend patrol.”

DACA workers would leave a hole in economy if forced to leave

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING —  Veronica Thronson, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Michigan State University, said the economic impact to ending DACA is uncertain, but it could have detrimental effects on those already benefiting from it.

Thronson said she knows of DACA participants who are research assistants at Michigan State.  Another created her own business, she said.

“She started a business where I think she has four or five employees so not only are they [DACA recipients] contributing, they’re also employing other people,” Thronson said. “And so the impact is just going to be tremendous.”

Michigan’s economy could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the children of undocumented immigrants are deported, according to some analyses.

However, much uncertainty remains on the scale of the potential loss as the result of the Trump administration’s push for a plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

That program — enacted under former President Barack Obama — protects children brought to the United States by undocumented immigrants. To qualify, most had to enter the U.S. before they were 16 and live here since June 15, 2007.

A liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, based in Washington, D.C., pegs the economic loss at nearly $390 million for Michigan and nationally at $433.4 billion over the next 10 years. The conservative Cato Institute, also in Washington, puts the national figure at $280 billion over the next decade.

DACA allows these undocumented immigrants to apply for a two-year period of deferred action on deportation and to apply for a work permit. It does not give them legal status as a citizen.

Trump moved to end DACA Tuesday, giving its nearly 800,000 participants a six-month delay before they are eligible for deportation.

The onus is now on Congress to replace the program before the six-month delay ends.

The Center for American Progress estimates there are 5,982 Michigan DACA participants and that 5,204 of them are employed.

The Washington, D.C., Migration Policy Institute estimates that 15,000 Michigan residents are eligible for the program.

Experts say that the loss to the economy comes from losing potential workers.

Many participants are also pursuing high -evel degrees which will translate into employment in high skilled jobs,  Thronson said.

Much of the uncertainty shinges on how or if Congress adopts a new law regarding DACA.

“In that case the effects are likely to be small,” said Charles Ballard, an economist with the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan Statey.

The approximately 6,000 Michigan DACA participants could have a small economic impact in a state of 10 million residents, Ballard said. It would fall more so on the individual than on the economy as a whole.

As for highly skilled workers being removed from the economy, Ballard said he believes it wouldn’t be “devastating” to the economy in Michigan but would present a challenge to employers.

“If you’re an employer and you have a few of your top workers and all of a sudden they’re gone, that hurts your business — no question about it,” Ballard said.

Canada might be a benefactor if Michigan DACA workers are deported, he said. Many might choose to move there instead of facing deportation to a country which doesn’t speak English as a primary language.

“If we basically export thousands of highly skilled workers to Canada, that’s a win for Canada and a loss for the United States,” Ballard said.

Removing potential skilled workers harms the economy, Ike Brannon, a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote in an email.

“We’d basically be taking almost a million potential workers, all of whom have or are receiving post-high-school education, and are consigning them to the informal/underground work force,” Brannon wrote. “When the unemployment rate is below 4.5 percent, the issue isn’t that we have skilled people who are looking for jobs

“It’s that we have occupations that are wanting for skilled people, and we’re removing people who fill those needed positions, Brannon said.

Michigan police, civil rights groups at odds over military equipment for cops

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — County sheriff departments eager to acquire more aircraft, observation helicopters, camouflage and other military equipment can look forward to more opportunity to acquire them after a federal ban on some surplus was lifted.

“President Trump’s actions enable law enforcement to provide tools and equipment that comes through the federal government at little to no cost that we cannot afford on a local basis,” said Tim Parker, the sheriff of Hillsdale County.

While this reverses the federal government’s position and allows police more access to such equipment, the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights says it is a step away from improving police-community relations.

“For the Trump administration to lift the ban really sends the wrong message to law enforcement that they more or less have a free hand to engage militarized tactics in civilian populations,” said Abayomi Azikiwe, a coalition board member.

The new plan announced Aug. 28 rolls back a 2015 Obama administration restriction issued in response to criticism over police use of military-style gear by police during the Ferguson, Missouri, riots more than three years ago.

The new order eases restrictions on giving police equipment like tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and other military-grade supplies.

Police say the discussion about using military equipment has focused on need rather than the advantages it could bring in special cases, and they say it needs a shift in perspective.

“The whole issue, we think from a law enforcement’s perspective, has been framed incorrectly,” said Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. “Yes, it’s surplus equipment the military has that they’re giving to police departments. But anyone can buy this stuff on the market.”

And most of the equipment isn’t used the same way it was by the military.

Police use bayonets as cutting tools in medical kits and for ceremonial purposes, Stevenson said. Grenade launchers are used to disperse unruly crowds with tear gas. And a lot of what is acquired is cold- and warm-weather clothing, at a time, when “police department budgets were decimated,” Stevenson said.

“Most of this stuff won’t ever be used, but it’s an insurance policy,” he said.

In September 2012, the West Bloomfield Police Department used military armored vehicles and robots in a firefight with a barricaded gunman.

“An officer was killed by a barricaded gunman, who was shooting an automatic weapon, striking neighbors homes,” said Mike Bouchard, the Oakland County sheriff.

Armored vehicles and robots assisted in the safe evacuation of neighbors during the firefight.

“The fact of the matter is, these are life-saving equipment. Now we hope we never have to use them, but in our business, that’s not a strategy. Preparation is,” Bouchard said.

In 1997, Congress authorized the Department of Defense to repurpose tax-funded military equipment for police to use at no charge.

“That has already been paid for once. So the question is, ‘do you want to have the taxpayer pay for it twice, or repurpose it and use it in the domestic market?’” said the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, Blaine Koops.

Bouchard said Oakland County spent $350,000 on a new armored vehicle after losing its vehicle donated by the military after Obama’s executive order in January 2016,.

Hillsdale County may not be getting armored vehicles anytime soon, but Parker, the sheriff, said it’s good the opportunity is available.

“It is an extreme asset to local communities to have these tools are available,” he said.

In Marquette County,  with fewer than 70,000 people, some police chiefs do not see the need for military equipment.

“We don’t take advantage of that program too much,” Marquette County Sheriff Gregory Zyburt said. “I think the department received some rifles a while back, but not a lot since. There aren’t a lot of situations up here where that kind of equipment is needed.”

The Federal Defense Logistics Agency reports that Michigan has received more than $43 million of military surplus since 2006. That includes equipment as diverse as vehicles that resist mines, helicopters, bandage kits and flashlights.

An online database, run by Caspio, a software company, lists all surplus donated to law enforcement in Michigan by county. Information about the name, value and quantity of the supplies that was provided is available.

Even with lifting the ban, Koops of the Sheriffs’ Association doesn’t anticipate the equipment getting any more use than before.

“As far as the ban and the release of the ban, it’s really not going to change a lot of our procedures and processing. It’s special use, and that’s what it’s for. It’s for situations that the public may not see,” he said.

Local governments seek help to regain big box tax revenue

By CHAO YAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Local governments continue to fight recent changes in valuing commercial properties that they say have cost them $100 million in lost tax revenue since 2013.

The problem, according to local officials and some lawmakers, is that the state’s Tax Tribunal is using methods to assess “big-box” retailers like Target and Menard’s based on sales of similar, vacant properties, often called “dark stores,” whose true value is not reflected.

That’s a shift from evaluating a store’s tax value based on more complete factors such as the cost of constructing the building and the amount of income it generates. Now, big retailers are appealing assessments and winning big tax breaks across the state.

Rep. David Maturen, R-Vicksburg, and dozens of co-sponsors are again pushing to solve the issue by insisting that the tribunal take more information into account when reviewing assessment appeals for any commercial property. Continue reading

Local governments applaud Legislature’s proposed revenue-sharing boost

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Proposed increases to Gov. Rick Snyder’s recommended budget for revenue sharing marks a welcome shift for cities, villages, townships and counties, which say they have not seen this part of their funding change for years despite great need for additional money.

Despite numerous cuts elsewhere to Snyder’s budget, Republicans in the House and Senate want the numbers for revenue sharing to local governments to be higher. They have proposed increases in the overall revenue-sharing budget of 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively, which has been met with praise from Michigan associations of local government units.

The revenue sharing program takes a portion of sales tax revenues collected by the Treasury and distributes those funds to local governments. The sales tax currently stands at 6 percent. Continue reading

Efforts lag to help mentally ill prisoners

By ISAAC CONSTANS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite recent efforts, treatment of people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons is still inadequate, experts agree.

Up to 64 percent of inmates in Michigan jails have a mental illness, according to an August 2014 report from the office of Gov. Rick Snyder. In Michigan prisons, the figure hovers just above 20 percent.

Stepping Up, a 2-year-old program launched by the National Association of Counties, aims to reduce the number of those with mental illnesses in jails across the state. By closely monitoring the status and collecting data on those with mental illnesses, the program aims to link various groups to solve the issue.

Despite the endorsement of the Michigan Association of Counties, the situation is still bleak. Continue reading