As judges attempt to avoid incarcerations while the deadly coronavirus spreads within jails and prisons, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and county Sheriff Anthony Wickersham announced today that they are ready to cancel a plan for a jail expansion tax proposal on the upcoming August ballot.

Hackel said the potential postponement was due to two factors: judges putting far fewer criminal defendants behind bars while they await trial, and countless Macomb taxpayers facing job furloughs or unemployment due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have weathered challenging economic times in the past, but we have never experienced a moment in time quite like this,” Hackel said. “We just haven’t seen it escalate this fast.  No one could have anticipated such a steep overnight decline in employment.”

Hackel had proposed a $371 million jail renovation/expansion project last year when the towering facility was overloaded, with a 1-mill tax levy to appear on the November 2019 ballot. Opposition to the planned ballot proposal by the county Board of Commissioners forced the Hackel administration to back pedal, targeting a downsized proposal for the August ballot.

During the first week of April, the jail population dropped below 500 inmates for the first time in more than 30 years. The decline is due to a number of factors, including judicial steps taken to find alternatives to incarceration and measures related to reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Hackel also pointed to skyrocketing unemployment claims in Macomb County as a reason not to burden taxpayers with an additional financial burden. Over the past three weeks, with more than 16.8 million jobless claims nationwide and 817,000 claims in Michigan – an astronomical amount – local governments across the state and nation are looking at dramatic budget cuts.

“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 plan for rehabilitating the jail will be placed on hold, but efforts to update incarceration practices remain on the county’s agenda.

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


Photo: Jamie Cook/Macomb Daily