Editorial Commentary by DCNews Online Editor, Dave Lee

Editor's Note:  We dedicate this to all those of you who have contacted us and supplied the material on which we were able to base this article.  Without your input there would have been little to write about.  We hope this helps give a voice to those who have no other way of being heard.   Feel free to enter any comments you may have at the bottom of this page.

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We have been working on this story for some time.  However, until several days ago, we were uncertain as to whether we would ever publish it, knowing that some people are not going to like the contents.

Then we received a rather large number of comments following our publication of an article earlier this week called "Dickinson County Booking Inmates At Nearly Seven Times National Average."

While most of the comments expressed surprise at the figures, several including one notable comment sent by a local public official, caused us to decide in favor of publication of the following article.

The comment that stood out to us came from a former member of the Kingsford City Council and a current member of the Dickinson County Healthcare System Board of Directors. To quote this gentleman: "Hopefully the criminal element gets the message and they move out of Dickinson County to a county which is more lenient towards crime."

What this individual seems not to understand is that it is not the criminal element that is being driven out of the County.

WHEN THE YOUNG PEOPLE LEAVE THE COMMUNITY DIES

It is statistical fact that the population of Dickinson County is not only decreasing, but it is aging. According to the latest information available from the US Census Bureau, the population of Dickinson County has again decreased, from slightly over 26,168 in the 2010 census, to approximately 25,500 in the 2015 county estimates. While the median age of all Americans in 2015 was estimated at 37.8 years, the median age of Dickinson County residents was estimated at 46.4 years.

YOU CANNOT FORCE PEOPLE TO LIVE HERE!

So why is the younger generation fleeing the area in ever increasing numbers? We've received quite a bit of input on this subject over the past 15 months, since our publication last July of an article comparing spending in Dickinson County to spending in four other comparable U.P. counties. That study shows that Dickinson County's spending on prosecutions and incarcerations far exceeds that of any of the other counties on a per-capita basis.

Common wisdom says that people leave the area due to lack of employment. However, none of those who submitted comments to us bears that out.  Instead, the most common factors mentioned were boredom, a feeling of isolation and oppression, and a fear of being arrested and jailed.

While many smaller communities suffer from the problem of a lack of social opportunities, few are as lacking as Dickinson County. We would maintain that this is due primarily to the out of control, hyper law enforcement practiced in the County.

NEWS FLASH!  YOU CAN'T FORCE PEOPLE TO VISIT HERE EITHER

There was a time, long, long ago, when Dickinson County had a thriving tourist industry.  Many of you can remember back into the 1960's and 1970's when the Lake Antoine campgrounds would be filled to capacity every summer with people having a good time.  Many local families purchased trailers or campers so that they could spend their vacations at the Lake Antoine Park.   Today, while nearby parks in Menominee and Iron Counties are filled to capacity, requiring reservations weeks or months in advance, the Lake Antoine park is almost never more than half filled.

When one has as little as Dickinson County has to offer; a ski hill, a couple of lakes and a pump, hospitality is essential.   The treatment many get when they visit Dickinson County is anything but hospitable.

We were told a story by former residents who now live in Green Bay. They bought a camper specifically so that they could camp at Lake Antoine and visit with local family and friends. On their first night of camping, they were sitting playing Smear with some visiting friends. They had their radio on at very low volume because they didn't want to keep the kids awake. Nevertheless, they were approached by the park "ranger," and "rudely" told that if they didn't turn their radio down they'd have to leave the park. The next day, they realized that there were no other "kids" in the park; nobody for their kids to play with. They said it resembled a "retirement village."  They decided to find another camping location, and after calling Wells State Park, Way Dam and the other Iron County Parks, they were able to find a spot at Pentoga Park three days later. They have spent all of their vacations there ever since.

The words "concentration camp" were bandied about in several of the e-mails we received regarding experiences at the Lake Antoine Park.

So how did Dickinson County become the county known as the place where you

"ARRIVE ON VACATION AND LEAVE ON PROBATION?"

We would have to go back to the 1970's, when Michael Kusz, serving first as Prosecutor and then as District Judge, turned himself into what, based on the input we have received, is likely the most hated person in recent Dickinson County history. There was probably a good reason why this individual chose to move out of the County within weeks after leaving office as District Judge.

Kusz began the "zero-tolerance, throw-the-book at everyone" policy as Prosecutor, and carried it to new heights as District Judge, when he began filling the jail to and beyond capacity on a regular basis. This policy was fed by the County Board which proceeded to hire more prosecutors; then expanded the jail to handle the problems that this policy was creating there. This set the stage for an even more aggressive law enforcement environment.

Since then the Prosecutor's office has grown to the point where it is one of the most expensive departments in the County, employing more prosecutors per-capita than any other UP county.

Prosecutors prosecute. That's who they are, that's what they do. In the case of Dickinson County, where the office employs far more prosecutors than can be rationally justified, virtually anything that comes before them will be charged, and generally charged with everything that a LexisNexis search can even remotely tie to the alleged offense. Not every minor transgression requires the aggressive prosecution that we see in Dickinson County. But then, these prosecutors have to maintain a case load, or someone may get the idea that they are "excess baggage."

NOTE: We should point out in fairness that occasionally we do hear of cases where the Prosecutor refuses to press charges.  Often these are cases that never should have been referred for prosecution in the first place, but are nothing more than an overabundance of testosterone, adrenalin and or imagination on the part of police officers.  Unfortunately, this doesn't happen nearly often enough.

An attorney acquaintance, who agreed to speak with us on condition of anonymity, said that considering the way law is practiced in Dickinson County, where everything is plea-bargained, the County could save a lot of money by replacing the highly-paid prosecutors with good salesmen with negotiating skills and pay them on a commission. LexisNexis and Google could supply them with the full range of charges that they can pile on to facilitate their negotiations.

Our attorney acquaintance said that plea-bargaining has become so much the norm in Dickinson County that if someone did have the 20 to 50 thousand dollars that it would take to mount a viable defense in court, they would have to hire a lawyer from out of the area, since none of the local practicing lawyers have any real trial experience; "all they do is plea bargain."

The primary victim of this type of policy becomes Constitutional Rights. When police can be 99.99% certain that a defendant will never get to tell their story in a courtroom, probable cause and other Constitutional guarantees become whatever the officer wants them to be. Probable cause is frequently something as innocent as: "we saw your interior light go on," or "you were hugging the center line, or conversely, you were hugging the fog line." Or, they can just make something up, if so inclined.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE IS BIG BUSINESS IN DICKINSON COUNTY 

The only ones who win under these circumstances are the lawyers.  These policies  allow attorneys to charge highly exorbitant fees while doing very little to earn them. With plea bargaining being the norm, most cases are settled with a 10 minute phone call between the "defense attorney" and the prosecutor assigned to the case. Most of the paperwork associated with this type of procedure is "fill in the blanks" computerized, and little of this is actually done by the attorney. Nevertheless, attorneys set minimum pricing for many offenses, which guarantees them a healthy fee for very little effort.  With plea bargaining being the norm, most of them would have a pretty tough time making a living if they had to bill based on actual time spent working on a case.  Naturally, those attorneys who practice criminal law love things just the way they are.  Trials are a lot of work.

It's impossible to estimate the total money that's involved in this aspect of the system.  It's likely into the millions of dollars.  Certainly, if there weren't very big money involved, there would be a lot fewer attorneys in the County.

The courts in Dickinson County are money making machines.  While we have not been able to tie down exact figures because of the way the accounting is handled, the courts collect well over a million dollars annually, in fines and costs alone.   In a County the size of Dickinson, that's big business.

But perhaps more damaging than the shenanigans practiced by both the Prosecutor's office and the criminal defense lawyers or the financial considerations, is the fetish or addiction that the District Court Judge seems to have with locking everyone up.

Over the past three months, Dickinson County has booked on average, 3.3 prisoners per day into the County Correctional Center.  This represents an annual figure of more than 4,800 per 100,000 population vs. 716 per 100,000 population, which is the National average.  (Figure is from the U.S. Department of Justice for 2015, the latest year for which complete figures are available)  And let us not forget that at 716 per 100,000, the United States is the World's largest jailer. Based on this, Dickinson County's rate is so astronomical as to be beyond any comparison.  It should also be mentioned that Dickinson County's prisoner intake rate has been higher than that 3.3 average more often than it has been lower.   Based on these numbers,

It is statistical fact that you are far more likely to be jailed in Dickinson County than you would be if you lived in North Korea, Iran, Communist China, or Russia.

This has far more to do with the unfettered exercise of power, disdain for the people who appear before the court, and retribution, than it has to do with justice, and has likely done far more to exacerbate the problem than it has to resolve it.  We would be surprised if the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" ever crosses this judge's mind.


It's apparent that no one knows, or no one cares, about the damage that can be done to some individuals with even a short time "behind bars."

ACCORDING TO THE NATIONAL INSTITUTES ON HEALTH:

"The adaptation to imprisonment is almost always difficult and, at times, creates habits of thinking and acting that can be dysfunctional in periods of post-prison adjustment. Yet, the psychological effects of incarceration vary from individual to individual and are often reversible. To be sure, then, not everyone who is incarcerated is disabled or psychologically harmed by it. But few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the experience. At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others."

Most people can ride in an elevator without a second thought. Yet there are some who cannot even stand the confinement of an elevator for a few minutes. Is any thought given to this fact as this judge hands out jail sentences like candy at a picnic?

Following our earlier publications on this subject, we heard from a local resident whose 18 year old son was arrested on a marijuana charge about a dozen years ago. Even though he only had a few grams, he was charged with five different offenses, including possession with intent to deliver, which is nothing more than a technical charge which the law allows prosecutors to use indiscriminately. They don't have to worry about proving it in a court of law; it's really nothing more than an addition to their plea bargaining arsenal.

After pleading guilty as the result of a plea bargain, the young man was sentenced to 15 days in the County jail. This mother claimed that after serving that sentence, she didn't know her son anymore. He lost interest in his friends and began associating with a new crowd. He began coming home (if he came home) with new tattoos, and using language that she had never heard him use before. He had been a good student in high school and had planned on attending college in the Fall. But they began to see less and less of him, and college never happened.

She said that while they still hear from him occasionally, usually on holidays, they really have no idea of his whereabouts or what he's up to. According to her claim, all of this happened as the result of a few grams of pot.

POST INCARCERATION SYNDROME (PICS)

Post Incarceration Syndrome is now widely recognized as a very real, diagnosable disorder, caused by incarceration. The extent of the damage done is influenced by the length of incarceration and by the environment behind bars, as well as by the mental state of the individual being incarcerated. For a percentage of the imprisoned population, the damage is believed to occur within the first 24 hours of being locked up. Figures on what percent of prisoners may be affected, and at what stage of imprisonment they are affected are still being researched. They range from 20% to 100%, depending on the criteria used in making the determination.

Left untreated and unresolved, PICS will likely result in continued recidivism, and in some rare cases, suicide.

While there has been a good deal of research on the subject, and it appears that the vast majority of researchers agree that PICS is a real problem, it has yet to be considered by the courts or by the facilities that house these prisoners.

LOCKING PEOPLE UP ISN'T CHEAP

Dickinson County appropriated slightly over 1.1 million dollars this year to run the County Jail. Certainly there are base expenses here which would exist regardless of the number of prisoners handled. However, the census does affect staffing levels as well as food and medical costs.

Here's the breakdown, according to figures provided to us by Dickinson County Controller, Brian Bousley:

Manpower and Uniforms: $746,879
Health Services: $139,593
Inmate Food Services: $210,938
Other Operations: $25,687

The County does recover some funds, from charges assessed on prisoners, over and above their court-ordered fines and costs.

Approximately $40,000 was collected each from work-release fees and from daily prisoner "room and board" charges."

Work released prisoners pay a fee of $125.00 per week, for those working more than 39 hours, while all other prisoners are assessed $12.00 per day. Collection rates are dismal, however. While the County billed approximately $160,000 in "room and board" fees, only around $40,000 was collected.

Members of the County Board will justify all of this by saying that we "live in a high-crime area." Frankly, one would have to have been living under a large rock not to realize that the opioid crisis is not unique to Dickinson County. It exists nation-wide, and there is a good deal of ongoing debate on how to handle the problem. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that locking people up is not the answer.

Let's also keep in mind that Dickinson County's Draconian treatment of it's citizens began long before the current opioid crisis began.

Part of the problem is that this has been going on for so long here that many, if not most Dickinson County residents see all of this as being perfectly normal.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL

Perhaps it's a bit like the frog in the pot of water.  If you bring the temperature up slowly, the frog won't notice the change.  But ultimately, it will kill him.

WHY DOES THIS ENVIRONMENT EXIST IN DICKINSON COUNTY?

With Iron Mountain being not only the County Seat, but home to a City Police Department and a Michigan State Police post, there is simply an over-abundance of police activity in Iron Mountain, specifically. But the situation doesn't end at the City Limits.

Here are a few of the emails, submitted by readers, that we have selected to share with you. They are quite representative.

We heard from several individuals who said that they began taking turns as "designated driver" in their groups of friends; one individual who refrained from any use of alcohol over the evening so that they could go out and have a good time while driving legally. But, that in no way precluded their being stopped, detained, frightened and embarrassed when driving in Dickinson County. According to the correspondence we received, there was absolutely no valid "probable cause," since the "designated driver" was extremely cautious to adhere to safe and legal driving practices.   Apparently, just being seen driving away from a bar or tavern is considered "probable cause" for this type of harassment in Dickinson County.

There is no doubt that if a cop stops enough vehicles at random, with or without regard to valid probable cause, he or she will run across an occasional offender.   Of course, this type of police activity is highly Unconstitutional and is in direct violation of the oath these officers take to uphold the Constitution..

We heard from a woman who now resides in Appleton, who was a bartender at the Fire Alarm in the late 1970's and early 1980's. She said she never drank at work because it was against company policy. Nevertheless, every couple of weeks or so, she'd get stopped and detained for 15 to 20 minutes on her way home. She said that "as though the inconvenience of being held there after working for eight hours on my feet wasn't enough, I was paying a baby-sitter by the hour while these guys played their sick games."

It is widely believed among those that contacted us that this was the primary reason for the closure of most of the entertainment venues in the area, adding to the "boredom" problem. Most frequently mentioned were the Fire Alarm and Jokerz. 


TERROR ON THE HIGHWAYS

For the average driver, few things are more terrifying than seeing that red light flashing in the rear view mirror, especially at night, on a long, lonely stretch of highway.

We received an e-mail from a gentleman who said he took a job in Marquette County, but intended to continue living in Dickinson County so that the kids could finish school here. The plan was that he would stay in Marquette during the week and come home for week-ends and special events. He said he worked the second shift so it was usually midnight or so before he got near home. He said he was stopped and detained "more times than I can remember," on Highway M-95, usually out in the middle of nowhere. He said that being pulled over by the police on a long, lonely stretch of dark highway was always a frightening and stressful event, and usually pretty much spoiled his week-end, even though he was never once charged with anything. Because he was "not willing to keep playing this game," the family moved to Marquette at the end of the school year.

We heard from another family who said that they were stopped by the police shortly after entering Michigan on Highway 141 for a trailer tail light that was supposedly blinking off and on; though it seemed fine when they later checked it. After being held alongside the road for nearly 20 minutes, with a couple of crying children in the car, they were allowed to leave with no charges, just a verbal warning. When they arrived at their destination, Lake Antoine Park, later than expected, they were unable to get into the park. The gate was locked and they couldn't find anyone to let them in.

(After making several phone calls they were able to park their trailer in the yard of a friend, until they were able to find an opening at the Way Dam park several days later.)

There is one common thread in nearly all of the comments we received: The police department involved was the Michigan State Police.

Why would the State Police act in a manner that many see as unreasonably aggressive? We would suggest that the reason is clear. Unlike the various city police officers and County deputies who will likely work most of their careers and retire from their local police jobs, most of the officers assigned to the local State Police post have no loyalty to this community, and almost certainly never give a second thought to the societal damage that they may be creating. After all, this is just a "stopping off point." Many of them are young and "looking for action." Since there isn't a whole lot of "action" in Dickinson County, they will many times "create their own." One cannot help but think that perhaps these individuals have watched one too many episodes of "Cops" on television.

But it isn't just those who feel personally aggrieved or threatened who choose to leave the area.  We received another e-mail from a woman who said that she and her husband had sold their home in Kingsford and moved to Green Bay so that they could be near their children and grandchildren who refused to even visit here.

IN CONCLUSION

We would be remiss if we closed without mentioning two e-mails which we received from former area residents who said that they had decided that they would leave the area on the day when their lockers at school were rifled through by police on one of their random sweeps. Neither was guilty of anything, nor was there any contraband discovered in their lockers. We can't help but wonder how many other youngsters reacted in similar fashion to these intrusions.

No one questions the fact that those who present a danger to society need to be removed from society. However, even in these cases, some attempt should be made at rehabilitation, since most of these individuals will again be turned loose on society at some point. (Even Dickinson County can't lock everyone up forever). Locking everyone up, even on the most trivial charges, is Draconian and has no place in modern society. Locking everyone up, even for victimless, non-violent, minor offenses demonstrates ignorance. Thinking that this is "OK" demonstrates a total lack of humanity. 

The County will continue to slowly bleed itself to death, unless these policies, practices and priorities are changed. The only ones who have the power to change things are the five members of the Dickinson County Board of Commissioners. With control over the County's purse-strings, the Board can and should realign it's priorities; and along with that, it's spending.

We must compliment the Board on having recently adopted the Michigan "Stepping Up" program. The Board approved participation in the program on recommendation by Commissioner Joe Stevens (R-Dist 1) after he attended a seminar explaining the concept. "Stepping Up" is intended to separate those with mental problems from criminal offenders, and find alternative methods of handling their problems. Seventeen Michigan counties have thus far adopted this program. Dickinson and Marquette are the only two Upper Peninsula Counties participating. On the surface this appears to be a well-intended program that will hopefully produce results. Unfortunately, in far too many cases, it will only attempt to resolve issues created and perpetuated by the local courts.

It is our sincere hope that the County Board of Commissioners will continue moving in this direction, and perhaps make the County a more hospitable place both for residents and visitors.

WARNING:

For those of you, and there are many, who believe in this "Rule with an iron fist" philosophy, just remember that:

YOU CANNOT FORCE PEOPLE TO LIVE HERE

(At least not after they get off of probation.)

In the event that you believe that none of this relates to you in any way, consider this:  Those being marched into Dickinson County courts today are the "low hanging fruit."  Once they have all been jailed or driven out of the area;

 

YOU MAY BE NEXT!

 

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IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE SOMETHING CHANGE IN DICKINSON COUNTY, NOW IS THE TIME TO CONTACT YOUR COUNTY COMMISSIONER, SINCE THE BOARD IS CURRENTLY WORKING ON THE BUDGET FOR THE NEXT FISCAL YEAR.

Current members of the Dickinson County Board of Commissioners are:

District 1 - Joe Stevens (R) - 774-0325

District 2 - Ann Martin (R) - 774-5463

District 3 - Barbara Kramer (R) - 779-5032

District 4 - Henry Wender ,Chmn, (R) - 774-0706

District 5 - John Degenaer, Jr. (D) - 563-4586

 

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