Unfortunately, it has taken a crisis of this magnitude to provide a glimpse of what a more just criminal justice system can look like.
I’m talking, of course, about the COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts by judges, prosecutors and county sheriffs across the state to release as many people from jails as possible to protect them from contracting the potentially fatal virus, and protect the staff who interact with them. As a result, Michigan’s jail population has been reduced to levels not seen in decades.
Releasing these people now is absolutely the humane and ethical thing to do. Local jails — where social distancing simply isn’t possible — can become concentrated hotspots, like petri dishes for the coronavirus.
Why should someone charged with driving without a license be forced to increase their risk of exposure to the virus? The clear answer is, they should not. So, I applaud the effort — an effort I’ve been proud to be part of as Washtenaw County Sheriff to drastically reduce jail populations while this virus remains a threat.
But here’s another question: Why should someone charged with driving without a license be in jail at all? Again, the answer is clear: They shouldn’t.
For much of last year, I and other members of the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration — a bipartisan collection of politicians, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, victims’ advocates and other members of the law enforcement community — spent much of last year intensely investigating Michigan’s inmate population: Who they are, why they are being locked up, and for how long.
What we found only confirmed what I’ve known for too long: Michigan’s jails are filled with people who really don’t need to be there.
The task force analyzed three years of data from a diverse sample of jails in 20 counties, representing nearly half of the state’s jail population. The data revealed that more than 60% of jail admissions were for misdemeanor charges: crimes like shoplifting, drug possession, failing to appear in court, parole and probation violations (which are often minor infractions of stringent rules), and driving without a valid license.
Locking people up for these kinds of crimes does not make us safer.
Another disturbing number: About half of all the people sitting in a Michigan jail have not pleaded guilty or been convicted of any crime. Instead, because they are too poor to afford the cash bail needed to secure their freedom, they can stay locked up for months or more waiting for their day in court. During a visit to the Genesee County Jail, for example, task force members reported that they met with three people who’d been held in jail for two to four years while awaiting trial.
In a country where “innocent until proven guilty” is supposed to be a bedrock tenant of our criminal justice system, this absolutely unacceptable.
As for who is landing in jail, it is disproportionately men of color. In our research with the Pew Charitable Trusts, the task force found that Black men make up 6% of the resident population in the 20 counties in Pew’s study, but account for 29% of all jail admissions.
Deeper issues of class and race are very much at the heart of this problem. But it is not intractable. In January, a long list of reforms was handed over to the Governor and the Legislature with the hope they will be enacted swiftly.
All of society benefits if these recommendations are put into place. For starters, these reforms provide for potential cost savings or reinvestment in services that address the root cause challenges that contribute to the incarceration of many low-risk offenders. Michigan taxpayers spent at least $478 million on county jail and state corrections in 2017. Each one of those dollars should be invested strategically for anything to change for the better.
In addition to the financial impact, there are other costs — human costs — that are more difficult to quantify but even more significant. If the family breadwinner is sitting in jail and unable to work, there’s a good chance that person’s spouse and children could find themselves homeless when the bills don’t get paid. Innocent members of that family will be forced to endure great hardship and trauma, and their community will have another homeless family needing services.
No one benefits and many are hurt.
Instead of incarcerating people who are accused of or committed low-level offenses like driving with a suspended license and present a low risk to public safety, resources should be directed toward addiction and mental health programs, addressing housing insecurity, creating job, and providing other services to reduce the poverty that is an underlying cause for so many crime statistics.
I am proud and honored to serve as a county sheriff, and believe that law enforcement and corrections are important and necessary for building strong and sustainable communities. However, they should not be our only solution to societal challenges. Their limited resources should be focused on identifying, apprehending and maintaining custody of individuals who pose legitimate threats to the safety and security of the public.
Now, as the result of the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing just how unnecessary it is to keep our jails packed full of low-risk people convicted of non-violent crimes or awaiting trial. It is a lesson that comes at a terrible cost. I pray that it is not wasted.