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.

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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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