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Shiawassee Times

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Task force at work on studying Michigan's 'badly broken' jail system


By John Breslin | Feb 1, 2020

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A task force is currently studying what one commentator has described as the state's "badly broken" jail system that has led to a rise in the number of detainees, a contrast to the national trend.

The task force, charged by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to come up with proposals to reform a system that heavily burdens county budgets, has already highlighted some of the problem issues with the system, according to Mackinac Center for Public Policy Senior Strategist for State Affairs David Guenthner in a commentary first published by The Hill and reprinted by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Guenthner opened his argument with the headline numbers that the state's crime rate is the lowest in 50 years while the prison population is the lowest in 20 years.

Yet, the county jail population has tripled since the 1980s and appears to be still growing, according to Guenthner.

"The front end of Michigan’s criminal justice system is badly broken, and counties are paying a particularly heavy price," the commentator wrote, adding that Whitmer, in a letter said: that the "majority of spending in county budgets today goes to justice system costs.”

The governor's task force was asked to propose alternatives to jail for those who should remain in the community, reduce jail admissions, lengths of stay and costs.

According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust, which is advising the task force, the average length of stay in a Michigan jail is 22 days – two-thirds were released in one week or less. But, Guenthner noted, 1 in 6 admissions lasted longer than 30 days. Three percent of jail admissions stretched to more than six months.

Many, if not most, are pre-trial detainees – one was held for more than four years – which is leading to questions over the cash bail system, which is being scrapped in other parts of the country.

Other findings include that 60 percent of jail admissions are for misdemeanor offenses, compared to a quarter nationally. Individuals can be arrested for all misdemeanors, including even not having valid insurance. Many parts of the country are moving towards citations for many non-violent offenses.

Driving without a valid license is one of the most frequents charges to lead to a jail admission, with Guenthner noting that 5 percent last more than one month. The range of other offenses that can lead to suspension of a license, including unpaid court debts or child support, is wide.

The task force has also already flagged up how jails are used for short-term housing for those with mental health issues. The writer cites figures from the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimating that 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women admitted to jails have serious mental health conditions.

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