Bipartisan Jail Reform Remains a ‘Top Priority’ for Michigan Leaders

Lawmakers advance data-driven criminal justice bills in line with task force recommendations

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Bipartisan Jail Reform Remains a ‘Top Priority’ for Michigan Leaders
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) signs an executive order in April 2019 creating a task force to study the state’s jail population growth.
Nick Hagen

Top legislative leaders in Michigan have put forward a package of bills aimed at reducing the number of people in county jails, while improving public safety and ensuring accountability.

“Fixing our broken criminal justice system is a top priority for the Michigan House,” Speaker Lee Chatfield (R) said this summer as the measures were being introduced in both chambers. “Each year, hundreds of thousands of people sit inside of a jail, often when they pose no danger to the public. We can create more just and effective laws while ensuring public safety, and this reform puts us on that path.”

At a bipartisan press conference in late July, Chatfield applauded the proposals alongside Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) and top Democrats in a sign of broad support for the proposals.  

Among various provisions, the legislative package would eliminate driver’s license suspension as a penalty for offenses not related to dangerous driving, increase use of arrest alternatives at the front end of the system, prioritize alternatives to jail when sentencing for low-level offenses, and reduce jail admissions for people on probation and parole. As of early October, the bills had been reported out of each chamber’s judiciary committee for consideration by the full House or Senate.

The measures reflect recommendations of the inter-branch, bipartisan Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration , which received technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. Launched by state and county leaders in the spring of 2019, the task force found that Michigan’s jail population had nearly tripled in 40 years, even as crime rates fell to the lowest levels in 50 years. “The last time crime was this low, far fewer Michiganders were in jail,” panel members wrote in their January 2020 report.

A year of significant challenges

The state’s commitment to enacting criminal justice reform comes at a pivotal time for Michigan and the nation. In early September, the top 15 coronavirus clusters nationwide were all in jails or prisons. At the same time, protests across the country in recent months have focused on issues around racial justice, including the functioning of law enforcement, courts, and corrections institutions.

Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news site, reported in July that the state’s jail population had fallen by half this year as a response to the pandemic.  Court data shows significant declines in criminal case filings this year as well.

In an April press release, task force members lauded local, county, and state efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus by safely shrinking jail populations through the expansion of arrest alternatives. They noted that the report’s 18 data-driven recommendations could serve as a guide for who should stay in jail and who should be released, decisions made even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In analyzing Michigan’s jail populations, the task force found that over 60% of those admitted to jail had committed misdemeanor offenses. Traffic violations, for instance, accounted for half of all criminal court cases in 2018; driving without a license was the third-most common reason people went to jail. In Michigan, licenses can be suspended for a variety of reasons unrelated to dangerous driving, including failure to appear in court, or failure to pay court fines and fees.

The task force also found prevalent racial disparities within the system. Although Black adult males make up 6% of the population in the 20 counties examined, they accounted for 29% of jail admissions. And the data shows marked differences by race in the offenses that lead to jail admissions: Black people were much more likely to be sent to jail for driving without a valid license than White people. Driving without a valid license was the most serious charge at admission for 12% of Black men and 15% of Black women in the task force’s three-year sample, compared to only 6% of White men and women who were jailed during the same period.

“When people are calling for systemic change in police accountability and law enforcement practices, understand that these bills constitute huge progress toward that systemic change,” said Rep. Tenisha Yancey (D), a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor who served on the task force. The measures are intended to reduce the numbers of people engaged with the criminal justice system because of relatively minor infractions.

The task force’s full report and recommendations, released in January, represent a year-long engagement with jail system stakeholders. The panel analyzed 10 years of statewide arrest and court data, and three years of data on all jail admissions and releases from a large and diverse sample of county jails.

In February 2019, state leaders invited Pew and the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute to provide technical assistance to the task force as well as support for efforts to educate legislators and the public.

This bipartisan initiative stands out as an example of how state-level policy decisions can affect local jail populations and related costs. Although written and released prior to the pandemic and the nationwide calls for racial justice this spring, the task force recommendations have helped policymakers combat the spread of the virus in local jails and informed decisions about arrest practices that can exacerbate racial disparities.

By making jail reform a shared priority, state and local officials have discovered problem areas that were long hidden. They also have positioned themselves to respond quickly in an emergency, while committing to long-term positive change within the Michigan criminal justice system.

Jake Horowitz is a director and Terry Schuster is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.

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