Counties and some cities usually run jail facilities, but state legislators and policymakers play important roles in determining who goes to jail and how long they stay there. Concerned that Michigan’s jail population had tripled since the 1970s even though crime was at a 50-year low, state leaders decided in 2019 to examine the problem and address some of its causes.
Working together, state and county leaders launched the bipartisan Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration to explore how laws, policies, and budget decisions affect jail populations. The group, which received technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, found that Michigan’s criminal justice system used a large share of its jail capacity to penalize low-level offenses—a costly, ineffective way to protect communities.
After conducting Michigan’s first comprehensive analysis of jail data, the task force compiled a slate of state policy recommendations. Many of the proposals became the basis of legislative reforms that passed with bipartisan support. Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed the package into law on Jan. 4, 2021.
The reforms, which take effect this year, will:
With these changes, Michigan’s criminal justice systems have eliminated many of the practices that have sustained high jail populations. And state leaders are planning another round of reforms for the current legislative session. Among the upcoming proposals: safely expanding pretrial release, which would mean fewer people in the state would be held in jail while awaiting trial, and increasing investments in mental health diversion practices. The latter would make it more likely that people experiencing mental health emergencies are connected with treatment, rather than arrested and sent to jail.
Michigan’s historic reforms will not only improve the state’s criminal justice systems and the lives of residents but also serve as a template for other states where jails are driving increased taxpayer costs. With jail populations growing again after a pandemic-related drop, state leaders should take stock of how their laws have contributed to such growth. They can follow Michigan’s lead by enacting policies that direct police, court, and jail resources to public safety threats and that provide alternatives for people who can safely remain in the community.
Jake Horowitz is the director and Terry Schuster is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.
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