Audit: Michigan civil rights agency slow to investigate discrimination
- State agency reviewing discrimination claims took an average of 19 months to resolve complaints, well over its 6-month goal
- The department ‘needs to significantly improve’ timeliness to boost public faith in the process
- Department officials say a $10 million boost in its budget will provide staffing support needed to address backlog
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights took 19 months on average to resolve complaints of alleged discrimination, far exceeding the department’s 6-month turnaround goal and resulting in delays in 62 percent of cases, a state audit released Thursday concluded.
A report from the Office of the Auditor General found that the department — which is tasked with handling discrimination complaints and determining whether they amount to a violation of Michigan’s civil rights law — was “not effective” at completing investigations in a timely manner.
Agency officials said they agreed with the audit’s findings and blamed delays on staffing shortages.
The department “needs to significantly improve its timeliness in completing civil rights complaint investigations to bolster the public’s confidence regarding expeditious enforcement of the state’s civil rights laws,” the audit report states.
During an 18-month audit period ending June 30, 2022, the department completed 2,096 civil rights complaints investigations. Of those, only 8 percent were completed within 6 months, and fewer than 30 percent were completed within a year. The 2,405 open investigations on the department’s docket as of the audit’s completion had been open for 18 months on average.
An in-depth review of 39 sampled cases found significant delays by the department in 62 percent of cases, including delays in assigning a case to an investigator, contacting the claimant for an initial interview and initiating investigation into the case.
Nearly half of the cases reviewed by the Auditor General’s Office went an average of four months without evidence of the department actively investigating the complaint.
Under state law, people protected by the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act can file complaints if they believe they were discriminated against for employment, housing or other opportunities based on their religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression or their familial or marital status.
A 2022 Michigan Supreme Court ruling expanded the law’s scope to include explicit protections for LGBTQ+ people. Since Democrats won the legislative majority, legislation codifying LGBTQ+ protections, as well as additional protections for hairstyles and people who obtain abortions, have been signed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Department officials, who initially requested the audit take place, said they were “not surprised” by the findings, attributing the backlog to understaffing. Investigators were typically handling between 80 to 100 cases apiece, the audit found.
“We agree with the audit results and view their report as a roadmap, pointing the way to where we need to make improvements, and many of those efforts are already underway,” Michigan Department of Civil Rights Executive Director John E. Johnson, Jr. said in a statement.
The department’s budget is set to increase by more than $10 million in the next fiscal year from $21.6 million to $31.7 million, including an ongoing $5.7 million for adding employees to address the backlog.
The new funding marks the first time in years the Legislature has recognized the department’s need for more support, Johnson said, noting the funding would be used “to hire additional enforcement staff, reduce the time it takes to resolve complaints and dramatically enhance our services to Michigan residents.”
A state budget document shows the department is expected to grow from 115 to 166 full time employees in the coming fiscal year.
The audit also recommended the department beef up its process for taking in and keeping track of incoming complaints. The department did not maintain adequate records of telephone complaints or intake interviews, the audit found, and a handful of emailed complaints were never reviewed at all, instead ending up in a junk email folder where 97 percent of emails went unread.
Department officials told auditors the agency would update its policies to make sure all incoming telephone contacts were logged and that junk email would be reviewed daily, as well as provide additional training to enforcement staff to ensure proper documentation of complaints.
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