Early findings by a Michigan jail task force seeking to understand why the state’s jail population continues to grow, suggest one possible culprit: Plenty of people are behind bars for administrative rule-breaking and other non-violent crimes.
Last year, for instance, the offense that generated the greatest number of arrests in Michigan was for failure to appear in court, Michigan State Police data show.
Among other disclosures cited at a task force meeting Friday in Grand Rapids: a striking imbalance in the nature of arrests within the state.
Arrests are involved in about 90 percent of criminal charges in Michigan, with defendants given citations in only about 10 percent of cases. The difference: Arrestees go to jail, while a person who is given a citation can be given a date to appear in court, with no stop in jail.
Former House Speaker Craig DeRoche – a task force member – told Bridge Magazine the data laid out Friday point to an obvious starting place for jail reform.
“What this tells me is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of people going in and out of jail every day that don’t need to be there,” said DeRoche, now senior vice president for Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit advocate for criminal justice reform.
“I’m talking about the 40 percent that are going in and out of jail for violations like driving without a license, for retail theft of less than a thousand dollars and for technical violations like not showing up for a meeting.
“The question is: Why did they go to jail in the first place?”
Crime in Michigan is falling. And yet the number of inmates in Michigan jails nearly tripled over a 30-year period, 5,700 jail inmates in 1975 to 16,600 in 2015.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formed the task force in April to expand alternatives to jail and reduce jail admissions and lengths of stay. The task force contracted with researchers at the Pew Charitable Trusts to dive into why people are being locked up in jails across the state, and recommend legal and policy strategies to alter jail practices.
Former Holland GOP state Rep. Joe Haveman said the findings underscore the need for jail and prison reform. Haveman was a persistent criminal justice reform advocate during his six years in the state House.
“The statistics I hear is that most people do better when they are with their family and their home and their job. Incarceration should be kept for those individuals who are harmful to their community and are dangerous. That should be a guiding principle.”
Like many others, Haveman said he is mystified why Michigan’s jail population has not fallen along with the falling crime rates.
“Why is the jail population going up? I don’t know. It seems like we would want to keep that as low as possible.”
There could be growing momentum for some form of jail reform, as current GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield co-authored with DeRoche and former GOP House Speaker Jase Bolger an opinion piece in May that stated in part: “We have to question whether incarceration protects families in Michigan or whether it tears them apart instead.”
Over the last decade, the number of citations issued in lieu of arrest has been cut in half, according to research by Pew, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that is working with state and local officials across Michigan to compile the jail population findings.
Among some other findings released Friday included that nearly two-thirds of jail admissions are for misdemeanor charges.
And 12 percent of people released on bond were in jail for periods ranging from a week to more than a month. A third of this group spent at least two days in jail.
Jail reform advocates say even brief stays can disrupt an inmate’s personal life, in some cases leading to job loss and a greater likelihood of committing another crime.
Long-term jail stays account for most of the jail population. Inmates with jail stays of less than a week accounted for 66 percent of jail admissions, for just 5 percent jail bed days. On the other hand, those who were in jail more than a month accounted for 17 percent of admissions, but 82 percent of jail bed days.
A Pew analysis earlier this year found that Michigan counties held 51 people in jail for every 100,000 residents in 1960. By 2017 ‒- with about the same crime rate as 1960 -‒ that rate soared to 163 people in county jails for every 100,000 residents.
That report also found a puzzling trend of higher incarceration rates in rural areas of Michigan.
In 1978, the report found, 15 percent of all Michiganders in jail were held in rural counties, compared to 34 percent of all inmates in urban jails. That turned upside down by 2013, as the share of inmates in rural jails reached 24 percent of the state’s total jail population, compared to 19 percent in urban jails. The number of those held before trial also appears to be climbing in rural jails, while falling in urban jails.
Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and a jail task force co-chair told Bridge on Friday she didn’t want to prejudge what reform measures the task force might endorse.
But McCormack said she was surprised by the finding that 17 percent of those jailed for driving without a valid license were in jail for periods ranging from a week to more than a month.
“The number of people who seemed to be in jail for longer than a couple days for driving with a suspended license – I was taken aback by that. It strikes me as something we are going to want to pay more attention to.”
Milton Mack, Michigan’s state court administrator, said by phone on Thursday that any reform of Michigan’s jail system also must include robust programs to divert the seriously mentally ill from jail to treatment.
“It’s critical,” he said.
Mack pointed to a 2017 survey by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department that found that half of 20,000 county jail inmates had previously received community mental health care, often an indication of serious mental illness.
“You cannot fix Michigan’s jail and prison problem without paying heavy attention to mental illness,” he said.
The task force next meets in Detroit on Oct. 18. It is scheduled to issue a final report and recommendations to the state on Jan. 9.