Opioid epidemic a factor in jail overcrowding

The recent spike in drug-related crimes requiring incarceration has resulted in those charged with misdemeanor offenses being released back into the community before they are scheduled to appear in court. (Daily Mining Gazette photo by Graham Jaehnig)

By Graham Jaehnig

Houghton Daily Mining Gazette

HOUGHTON — The Copper Country has not been spared the drug addiction spike sweeping the nation, and it is costing the region more money.

Ontonagon County Sheriff Dale Rantala recently was compelled to add a sixth member to his staff, while in Keweenaw County, the board this month approved a motion to add an additional deputy to the staff of that Sheriff’s Office. Law enforcement agencies throughout the Copper Country are struggling to keep up with drug-related crimes.

The spike in drug-related crimes has also resulted directly in an on-going overcrowding issue at the Houghton County Jail, which in the end, has begun to hamper the effective enforcement of the law, and many non-violent offenders being turned back onto the street. Those offenders consist of misdemeanors, which are not held in jail before an assigned court date, according to Capt. Doug Hebner of the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department.

“The misdemeanors we don’t house right now,” Hebner said, “Those that are detained by police are: no insurance, which falls under 93 days in jail; driving without a license or with a suspended license. We do not lodge on that. You come in and get prints taken, and then you get a court date.”

Retail fraud, third degree is another example of a misdemeanor which normally is a jail-able offense, but is not accepted by the jail before a court date, Hebner said.

“We just don’t have room to house these people,” Hebner said. “Somebody goes into a store and steals socks or something like that. Now, if you’re going into a store and stealing stereo equipment, DVDs, that raises the bar into second- or first-degree retail fraud. You’re normal third-degree person who gets nabbed — say the city of Houghton maybe arrests them, they bring them in — we do the print processing, the arresting officer issues an appearance ticket, and they appear to the court.”

Hebner said these types of crimes are non-assaultive, non-violent and they are not considered a threat to the public.

“They don’t have enough money and they don’t have insurance; ‘I’ve got a couple of suspensions, I don’t have enough money to regain my license,’ and they get caught speeding,” Hebner said.