It’s a riddle at the heart of Michigan’s efforts to reform its criminal justice system: How can it be that the state’s county jail population has tripled over the past 50 years even as crime rates have plunged to levels not seen in generations?
Nobody seems to know.
One major reason is nobody at the state level knows much about the inmates being housed in county jails, or why they are there.
“Right now in Michigan there’s no person and no data set that can answer the question: Who’s in jail across the state, for how long, and why?,” said Terry Schuster, a project manager with the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The vast majority of Michigan’s 83 counties have their own record-keeping systems, making it difficult to assess ‒ much less compare or change ‒ incarceration policies that may contribute to crowded jail cells.
It’s a patchwork system that costs taxpayers roughly half a billion dollars a year.
Gathering such information at a statewide level is a task that now falls to the new Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, which meets for the first time Wednesday morning.
The task force, formed as a result of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order in April, is a bipartisan group of politicians, public defenders, victims advocates, corrections officers and others affected by the county jail system. It is asked to recommend changes to criminal justice policy by January.
What’s the goal of the jail study?
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order outlined what she hopes the task force will accomplish through its recommendations:
- Expand alternatives to jail
- Reduce the number of people sent to jail, how long they stay there, and the amounts counties spend
- Ensure “consistent, objective, and evidence-based” decisions for pretrial incarceration
- Improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the state and county justice systems.
- Better align policy with research.
In the meantime, the group will have its hands full gathering and making sense of research. They’ll get help from Schuster and his colleagues at Pew, a nonpartisan research organization based in Philadelphia, which will collect and analyze data from Michigan county jails in a study that Pew says is a first of its kind in the nation.
Over the next several months, the task force will get data briefings from Pew, study variations in incarceration from county to county, and solicit testimony from the public.
Wednesday’s meeting is to be the first step in a process state officials hope will dramatically change the justice system for the better.
“The purpose of this task force is to find out” why the trends are happening, Schuster told Bridge. “We’re not starting with the answer, we’re starting with the question.”
Here are five criminal justice data trends Pew has already identified:
Crime rates in Michigan are at 60-year lows, but incarceration rates are three times higher.
We’re at a low point for crime in Michigan and across the country ‒ the last time crime rates were this low was in 1960.
“You might think that when crime is high, the jail population is high, and when crime is low, the jail population is low,” Schuster said. “But we don’t actually see that one-to-one relationship in the data.”
In 1960 Michigan counties held 51 people in jail for every 100,000 residents. In 2017 ‒ with the same crime rate as 1960 ‒ Michigan counties held 163 people in jail for every 100,000 residents.
It’s not clear what’s behind the numbers, Schuster said, but it’s likely due to changes in county or state policies ‒ exactly the kind of puzzle the state, with Pew’s help, is trying to solve. It could be that sentences have gotten harsher. Perhaps courts are more likely to punish probation violations with jail time. Or it may have to do with judges requiring cash bond.
“It’s definitely not rising crime rates,” Schuster said. “So what is it?”
Crime rates haven’t been as low as they are now in six decades. Last time crime was this low, far fewer people were in jail. (Graphic by the Pew Charitable Trusts)
Nationally, jail populations quadrupled over four decades. In Michigan, it tripled.
At the national level, that’s largely due to an increase in pretrial incarceration ‒ the number of people sitting in jail charged with a crime and waiting to go to trial.
But in Michigan, growth in pretrial populations is only half the story: There’s also been a growth in jail inmates serving out sentences, suggesting there are either more people serving time or inmates are staying in jail longer.
The split between what Michigan and the rest of the nation are experiencing means policymakers who want to reduce jail populations will have to consider different tactics, Schuster said. Nationwide, lawmakers may need to look at changing pretrial policies such as the bail system. Michigan may need to review both its pretrial and sentencing policies.
Michigan counties spend three times as much on jails as they do on community and economic development.
Michigan counties collectively spend $478 million every year on jails. That includes expenses such as staff salaries, the facility’s electricity and heat, food for inmates and more.
According to data from the Michigan Department of Treasury, that’s three times more than what counties invest in, say, community and economic development initiatives ($167 million in 2017).
Depending on the county, those projects might include brownfield redevelopment, business development services or community programming.
Where did the numbers come from?
Researchers at the Pew Charitable Trusts used existing data from state and federal sources to identify trends listed in this story. You can explore the data here:
Pretrial incarceration rates are rising in rural Michigan and falling in urban centers.
“We don’t have an explanation for it, but we do have data for it,” Schuster said.
Rural counties, such as Ionia and Grand Traverse, are seeing higher rates of people being held in jail while they await trial. Urban counties like Wayne and Kent are seeing those rates fall.
That trend also extends to the overall jail population: In 1978, 15 percent of all Michiganders in jail were held in rural counties. Since then, rural jail incarceration grew faster than urban jail incarceration. Now, more of the state’s jail inmates are being held in rural counties. In 2013, rural jails held 24 percent of all jail inmates in the state.
Over the last several decades, jail incarceration rates have risen in rural Michigan and fell in urban centers. (Graphic by the Pew Charitable Trusts)
Nationwide, people are staying in jail longer than in years past.
Arrest rates have decreased significantly around the country over the last decade, dropping 25 percent. “It’s a really big drop in arrests, it’s not tiny,” Schuster said.
The number of jail admissions is down, too; fewer people are going to jail in the first place.
What’s not changing: the average daily jail population. That means people are staying in jail longer than they used to.
Explained Schuster: “You’d expect that if we’re arresting fewer people the jail population would come down, right? That’s not happening.”
The same thing may be happening in Michigan, he said, but researchers aren’t sure yet.
Whatever the task force finds could lead to real changes ‒ the task force is supported by both Democratic Gov. Whitmer and Republican leaders in the state legislature, and seems to be a continuation of bipartisan support for criminal justice legislation since the beginning of the year.
“Criminal justice reform should never be a partisan issue,” said Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield when Whitmer signed the executive order creating the project. “We need to ensure across the state of Michigan that we are not over-criminalizing our citizens, and people have real opportunities as they’re seeking to re-enter our society.”
Added Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel: “I have waited my entire career to see this kind of bipartisan support and commitment to criminal justice reform.”