County data details ever-present need for local lockup
ALPENA — People go to jail accused of small crimes but stick around accused of big ones, according to data from the Alpena County Jail.
Some will return again and again, accused of new crimes — one of the reasons we’ll always need jails, according to Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski, who oversees jail operations.
“Unfortunately, we’re never going to go away,” Kieliszeweski said.
As the county nears completion on a new, $11 million jail supported by a property tax hike, jail data details the various, never-ending needs for a local lockup.
Since 2015, failure to follow court instructions has topped the list of the most common reasons police take people to jail. Three of every five detainees over the past five years didn’t show up for court, didn’t pay child support or other court-ordered costs, or violated probation or parole, according to a News analysis of jail data provided by the county.
After contempt of court and failure to pay required costs, drunk driving is the most common reason for a jail booking, and driver’s license violations, domestic violence, retail fraud, and drunk-and-disorderly charges also fall among the top charges at the Alpena County Jail.
Up until two years ago, when Michigan voters legalized marijuana, possession of that drug also ranked high on the list.
In 2019 and 2020, an increase in assault arrests — about 50 bookings for assault each year — put that crime on the top-10 list of reasons for incarceration.
The jail logs about 1,200 to 1,300 bookings in an average year, though that number dropped substantially in 2020, when public health officials advised police to make fewer arrests to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in jails’ confined spaces.
Population — which can vary from hour to hour as corrections officers book or release inmates — fluctuated between averages in the 50s to the 70s between 2015 and 2019, according to the data, but hit a low of 36 inmates in April 2020 — the lowest since at least January 2015.
WHO’S BEHIND BARS?
Women make up about one of every four Alpena County Jail admissions, matching the national average, which is up substantially from fewer than one in 10 in 1983, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national research and policy organization.
While most arrive at the Alpena County Jail charged with low-level crimes, people accused of violent crimes make up most of the actual jail population on any given day, Kieliszewski said.
That’s because many detainees facing charges for non-violent misdemeanors are booked and released almost immediately on a small bond or a personal recognizance bond requiring only the detainees’ promise to appear in court. But those charged with more serious crimes stay longer, either because they’re denied bond or can’t afford bond or because they’ve been sentenced.
Those sentenced for the most serious crimes, such as rape and attempted murder, will ultimately be transfered to state prison.
‘LIFE ON INSTALLMENTS’
Corrections officers see many of the same faces over and over, said Sgt. Scott Gagnon, who until recently served as the county’s jail administrator. Gagnon left the county’s employ for a new job after the interview for this story.
One Alpena resident has spent the equivalent of 7.6 years in the county jail since 2009 for a string of 72 arrests.
Another jail regular has been arrested and lodged 82 times, all on misdemeanor charges.
“Talk about life on installments,” Gagnon said.
Both offenders have substance abuse problems. One also struggles with mental illness.
Some people come to the jail once and never return. In other cases, generations of families pass through the jail, seemingly handing down incarceration as part of family tradition, Gagnon said.
“Depending on the nature of the crime, there’s only so much you can do,” Gagnon said. “I don’t know that there is an answer.”