Coronavirus emptied Michigan’s jails without crime surge. Time for reform?

Advocates of jail reform say there has not been a spike in crime after jail populations fell dramatically. They say that shows officials can keep the public safe while incarcerating fewer people.

Michigan jail populations have fallen by half amid the coronavirus pandemic without a spike in crime, offering encouragement to reformers who say it’s possible to reduce incarceration without compromising public safety.

The statewide jail population fell from about 17,000 of 18,000 beds in mid-March to about 8,000 six weeks later, as sheriffs and judges freed inmates to reduce the risk of exposure, according to the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. Populations haven’t changed significantly since, said the group’s executive director, Matt Saxton. 

Wayne County reduced its population by 40 percent; Genesee by 25 percent; and Ingham by 30 percent, according to separate publicly available data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit research group that seeks to reduce mass incarceration. 

And while statewide crime figures aren’t yet available, court and law enforcement officials who spoke to Bridge said they’re not seeing those released from jail re-committing crimes and returning in droves. 

“I’d say we’re pretty close to proof of theory,” said State Court Administrator Tom Boyd, who served on the state’s Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration that last year worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts on jail reform.

Statewide, new court filings in March and April are down compared with the same time in 2019, according to data provided to Bridge by the State Court Administrator’s Office that includes most courts in the state. 

That includes nearly a 50 percent decrease in new criminal filings in circuit courts; a 30 percent decrease in felony filings at the district court level; and a 33 percent decrease in non-traffic-related misdemeanor filings at the district court level. 

The state found similar trends in May and June: criminal filings in circuit courts were down 34 percent, and district court felony filings and non-traffic-related misdemeanor filings fell 13 and 27 percent respectively. 

Even so, the picture may be more mixed: Nationally, Police Executive Research Forum found that overall crime fell in many cities during the pandemic, but violence increased in some, including a small uptick in Grand Rapids. 

Detroit police have separately reported a small increase in homicides, while property crimes have decreased. 

“There are not many big upsides of a pandemic, but we actually get this experimental period where we get to look at the data” and observe the effects, said Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, who is co-chair of the jail task force.

She noted that, although the pandemic evidence is mostly anecdotal, years of data reviewed by the task force suggest that reducing jail populations wouldn’t impact violent crime.

Two weeks after the pandemic began in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order allowing courts to release most jail inmates who don’t pose a risk to public safety. The state Supreme Court also directed courts to determine who they could safely release and be more conservative in deciding who to hold as they await trial. 

“They all just took it very seriously,” McCormack said. “Jails and prisons are among the hottest infection spots across the country. It's really hard to keep people socially distanced.”

Controlling COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons has been difficult. Michigan has the fifth-highest rate of infection in its prisons, according to data collected by the Marshall Project. Michigan is also one of only a handful of states that has tested every inmate in its prison system. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services and the National Guard offered coronavirus testing to inmates in all of the state’s 80 county jail systems. More than 20 facilities received tests in late May, and another 17 received testing kits to conduct their own tests.

Only around seven facilities had found COVID-positive inmates by late April, said Saxton of the Sheriffs Association. Those included several of the largest county jail systems in the state, such as those in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Calhoun and Genesee counties. 

Now, with low numbers of inmates in county jails, many agencies have the extra space to test and quarantine any new people that come into the jail in an attempt to stop any spread, Saxton said. 

“But if the courts pick up and the numbers start to go back up, they may not have the space to quarantine those new intakes as they come in.”

There is a backlog of cases that courts will need to process as they slowly increase their capacity in accordance with a phased reopening strategy. But most of those aren’t “serious criminal cases,” McCormack said, because those would have been allowed to go forward anyway over the last several months. 

The Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration studied jail trends and consulted citizens and experts to develop a platform of 18 policy proposals they say would significantly shrink the state’s county jail population. 

Pew researchers found that Michigan jail populations had nearly tripled over the last four decades while crime rates dropped. Public safety, jails and courts are the third-largest cost for Michigan counties after public works and public health. In 2017 alone, Michiganders spent $478 million on county jails or  nearly $6 million per county on average. 

The task force recommends eliminating driver license suspensions as a punishment except for driving-related crimes; halting requirements for inmates to pay for incarcerations; reducing arrests for failing to appear in court; ending mandatory minimum sentences for misdemeanors and other reforms. 

Many recommendations have already been introduced in the state Legislature, but few have received committee hearings or a floor vote. 

There are five months left in the session and many state lawmakers are likely to be focused on campaigning ahead of the August and November elections, which may make it difficult for officials to turn all of their recommendations into law. 

But state legislators of both parties say they are optimistic they’ll be able to make changes. Criminal justice reform has been a rare area of bipartisan agreement since early 2019, with the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic-led executive branch rarely agreeing on priorities. 

Bipartisan members of the task force and legislative leaders hosted a press conference Wednesday morning to reiterate a commitment to moving the legislation forward. 

“This is a textbook example of how we can identify a problem and work to specify what the problem is and what the options are so we can make progress,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

“This task force put forward recommendations that I’m looking forward to putting some shoulder into, improving upon them, and prioritizing them for this fall.”

The lawmakers announced additional legislation to be introduced Thursday crafted from the task force’s recommendations, including bills that would reduce the number of people in jail for probation and parole violations, increase the use of “jail alternatives” for sentencing, and allow defendants to resolve low-level warrants without being arrested. 

The existing bills wouldn’t implement all of the task force’s recommendations. “These are the preliminary recommendations made that we think are the most important to get done during this legislative cycle,” said Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, who worked on the task force.

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Wed, 07/22/2020 - 4:11pm

Way to jump the gun.

Wed, 07/22/2020 - 7:40pm

Isn’t it likely that the decrease in property crime could, at least in part, be due to less aggressive law enforcement? Who could blame an officer for being reluctant to make arrests. On one hand, they do dangerous work with lots of COVID-19 exposure. On the other, their split second decision making is later second guessed by millions of “experts “, each of whom has the luxury of unlimited time. Consider also that their bosses will often later sell them out for political reasons. Small wonder that arrests are down.

Snuffy Smith
Wed, 07/22/2020 - 11:47pm

"While statewide crime figures are not yet available"???? I guess that proves this article is pyrex speculation..

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 1:04am

Totally irresponsible releasing criminals.

Judy Collins
Thu, 07/23/2020 - 4:47am

We need to make it a priority to look at reducing the jail populations while we have these facts, no is the time to act. The election should not stop us in reducing any cost that we can in this area.

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 8:50am

The jail population was down because of COVID-19. They didn't keep minor infractions jailed in hopes to limit the spread of COVID-19. This article is MISLEADING!

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 9:02am

It's utterly ridiculous for you to make an assessment of the recidivism rate of these recently released inmates after barely 3 months let's not jump the gun here! Make another assessment in one year. I am all for criminal justice reform but let's not be irresponsible either. Your eagerness is showing.

George Hagenauer
Thu, 07/23/2020 - 9:13am

What is interesting is this goes counter to post I see regularly from far right groups that argue crime is up- when in fact it isn't . ( A small increase in homicides is not surprising given the number of people trapped inside with each other - most homicides occur between people who know each other well- those are the ones that don't gt reported much in the press) Which means we are probably in for a national Presidential campaign based a lot on fear for which there is little cause- a lot of reference to Chicago where gangs are out of control often because they control the police and not much reference to the norm in many communities.

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 9:16am

If masks work, why didn't they use them in the jails? Why were the jails emptied?

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 8:12pm

Masks have metal. That was the excuse I heard. Oh, soap would be nice too.

Fri, 07/24/2020 - 2:30am


Thu, 07/23/2020 - 12:15pm

Remember Whitmir has been using Covid orders backed up by fines and jail times for those not following her rules like driving or not staying home,,,or visiting family! Government seems to enjoy putting people in metal and concrete boxes, and taking away basic freedoms for actions that are totally non-violent and in many cases only bring more grief to family's.

Something is very wrong here!

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 5:50pm

Wonder why whitmer just didnt issue masks to all the inmates. Shut the entire state down with her executive orders an mandated masks for every person in the state because of health risks within the state. If the masks are essential for persons not incarcerated then masks are ok for those are. Whitmer needs to get her priorities straight.

Americà up in arms
Fri, 07/24/2020 - 1:27am

Are you serious about this article. Have you not been watching the news at all of the shootings in Detroit alone. All this proves is crime does pay. You can violate the law either civil infractions of felony with the only recourse is to go to jail and get out free on tether ! And by watching the news this is only a fraction of Crimea reported. Go get a police scanner, then maybe contemplate rr-writing this article !

Amy Tachna
Fri, 07/24/2020 - 2:28am

If people do not have consequences for their actions why bother having laws? Lets just let all criminals run free and then we can decide! Good grief this is a problem!

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 3:06pm

Nobody said crimes would go unpunished just that alternative forms of punishment will be used for people who do not threaten public safety. Jailing somebody who owes money to the court is counterproductive dont you think? Having someone lose their job, homes, children, vehicle, doesnt make anyone safe and causes problems that weren't a problem before. The research shows this isnt a problem did you miss that part of the article? Actually people that think it's ok for a country to use jail to the extent that we do are the problem. Its cruel and certainly shouldnt be happening in the home of the free.

Fri, 07/24/2020 - 4:47am

We are hearing of many shootings and Chief Craig said the federal troops were coming to Detroit to try to deal with the increased gun violence.

Fri, 07/24/2020 - 7:48am

This article is straight B.S, I'm sorry. Violent crime is way up in many cities in Southeast Michigan and police chiefs are admitting that part of the reason for that is the early release of criminals. Even in Dearborn the police department said that gun crimes are up 130% so far this year.

Why didn't they actually quote police chiefs or folks on the ground to prove their point (rather than people who sit in their offices calling for prison reform)? Or is this publication a masquerading liberal propaganda tool now?

Daniel R Vigansky
Fri, 07/24/2020 - 3:54pm

Burning down our cities and more shootings do not count as a crime anymore,
it is all about the numbers and who is doing the counting!!

Sat, 07/25/2020 - 6:20am

No crime surge?! Have you not been paying attention? Crime has drastically surged.

Holly Daucher
Sun, 07/26/2020 - 9:38am

Do you watch the news? What am I missing you out of you mind.

Sun, 07/26/2020 - 11:43am

less crime? no they are not enforcing anything and are letting people go with warrants ive seen it first hand if anything there are more crimes being committed. Kids are being abused and so much more and they are doing nothing starting to now that some thing have opened up.

Sun, 07/26/2020 - 7:50pm

Most of the readers are correct in stating the crime surge is not down. And the jail's were cleaned out as to keep the COVID-19 down. But do they also know that this has overburdened the Parole/Probation systems. This article is premature in its findings.
Why can't the Reporters tell it like it is! Not repeatedly tell what the Spokesperson for the the Department of Corrections is allowed to tell the Public!

Baron Chingon
Sun, 11/15/2020 - 3:09pm

The effect of freeing the "marginally" incarcerated cannot be measured by crime statistics alone, as (this is opinion) those who are incarcerated for whatever crime, violation or technicality, tend to be social parasites, manipulators and excessively driven by self-interest.

Generally speaking, it goes without question that the potential for scarcity of staple goods, loss of purchasing power (inflation/lack of easy work), social unrest, "defund the police" mentality, and wearing MASKS everywhere you go in public is creating the potential for a crime wave unseen in modern history.