What’s behind the population boom in rural Michigan jails?

County jail

The pre-trial incarceration rate in rural Michigan counties climbed from 2005 to 2013 while falling in urban jails during the same period.

In the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula, Alpena County Jail tells a story familiar to much of rural Michigan.

Its inmate population is rising, the cost to cash-strapped county government is climbing – and the jail is filled with the mentally ill and misdemeanor defendants who fail to post bail while awaiting trial or sentencing for failing to pay fines or child support infractions. 

The county jail’s annual budget has spiked 40 percent in five years, from just under $940,000 in 2013 to more than $1.3 million in 2018. And even as the county’s population has dropped, from 29,598 in 2010 to 28,360 in 2018, the average daily jail census is up from 47 in 2013 to about 57 today.

“That’s a lot of money being taken out of our county budget for jail incarceration,” said Alpena County commissioner Bill Peterson, who also is a member of a joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

“That’s taking money out of how many officers we can put on road patrol and from other county services. We need to know why so many are in jail.”

And while a rise in jail population is of statewide urgency, it might be more so in rural areas. That’s the expected focus of a task force meeting Friday in Traverse City, which is convening people and groups across rural regions impacted by this issue. 

Bill Peterson

"We need to know why so many are in jail,” Alpena County Commissioner Bill Peterson.“ (Courtesy photo)

In 1960, according to a preliminary report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the nonprofit public organization conducting research on Michigan jails for the task force, Michigan counties held 51 people in jail for every 100,000 residents. In 2017 ‒- with about the same crime rate as 1960 -‒ that soared to 163 people in county jails for every 100,000 residents. The number of inmates in Michigan jails nearly tripled over 30 years, from 5,700 in 1975 to 16,600 in 2015.

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, compared to 19 percent in urban jails. The number of those held before trial appears to be climbing in rural jails, while falling in urban jails.

According to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, the pre-trial incarceration rate in rural Michigan counties climbed from about 90 inmates per 100,000 people in 2005 to 100 inmates per 100,000 in 2013. It fell in urban jails from just over 80 inmates per 100,000 in 2005 to about 70 inmates per 100,000 in 2013.

“Right now, the task force doesn’t know what’s driving these differences,” said Terry Schuster, a Pew Charitable Trusts project manager and research analyst for the task force. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formed the task force in April to expand alternatives to jail and reduce jail admissions and lengths of stay.

But Schuster did offer a couple theories.

 “It’s likely that rural areas have fewer mental health and drug treatment resources.  Judges in rural areas may not hold court hearings every day, so there may be scheduling delays that keep some people in jail longer in those parts of the state.”

But even within those broad differences between rural and urban jails, there are wild variations in the share of inmates awaiting trial or sentencing.

According to federal statistics, 78 percent of inmates in Newaygo County were awaiting arraignment or trial in 2013, compared to 17 percent in Berrien County, 21 percent in Midland County, 39 percent in Kent County and 61 percent in Ottawa County.

A more recent snapshot of the Alpena County Jail registry on Aug. 12 reveals an inmate mix found in jails across the state - and evidence, advocates say, of the need for criminal justice reform. According to jail administrator Scott Gagnon, the jail held 56 inmates that day. Of those, 25 were serving sentences.


The remaining 31 inmates were awaiting trial or sentencing. 

“They could all be out if they posted bond,” Gagnon said of those inmates.

He said that group included a dozen held on misdemeanor charges, including two for failure to pay court costs and one for failure to pay child support. Gagnon said some were being held because they failed to post cash bail bonds as low as $150.

There’s evidence that cash bail disproportionately harms the poor.  A 2015 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy organization, found that more than half of New York City jail inmates held until trial remained in jail because they could not afford bail of $2,500 or less. It also found that 31 percent of misdemeanor defendants were held on bail bonds of $500 or less.

Jail administrator Gagnon said the Aug. 12 Alpena County Jail population also included a woman held on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge because she  failed to pay a $150 bond that could have gotten her out.

“She struggles with mental illness. She doesn’t have a social network that’s there to help her,” Gagnon said.

And Gagnon said about a third of inmates in jail that day were prescribed psychotropic medications that indicate serious mental illness.

To be sure, incarceration of the mentally ill remains a reality in jails across the state, including urban counties like Wayne where it’s been reported about a fourth of inmates are mentally ill. That’s why a contingent of Wayne County judges, law enforcement and corrections officials along with state officials in March attended a two-day conference in Miami to learn about jail reform and mental illness.

Since 2000, the Miami-Dade Circuit Court Criminal Mental Health Project has helped reduce the Miami-Dade County jail population from nearly 7,000 prisoners a decade ago to just over 4,000 last year. It’s done so in part by training more than 6,500 officers – in every police jurisdiction in the county - in a 40-hour course in how to handle people in mental health crisis and steer them to treatment instead of jail.

Michigan has begun to offer similar training, as police departments in Kalamazoo, Kent and Oakland counties and elsewhere now offer what’s known as Crisis Intervention Team training for officers. But most police agencies across the state offer no such training.

Steven Kieliszewski

“There are times when up to half of the individuals who are incarcerated have mental health issues," said Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski.

Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski said such training is something he’s interested in. 

But he said it could be difficult to manage, because his department has just 13 road patrol employees, including himself.

“I would have to backfill those positions, which would be hard, especially if it’s somebody who is working days. It could be a huge burden on our office.”

Nonetheless, Kieliszewski said something has to be done to cut back on the number of mentally ill in his jail.

“There are times when up to half of the individuals who are incarcerated in our jail have mental health issues. Sometimes they need to be there, because of the nature of their crime. But other times, it would be best for the individual to keep them out of my facility.

“My corrections officers are not mental health workers.”

In the meantime, Alpena County property owners will shell out more for jail costs for a couple of decades. Officials broke ground in May for a $11-million new jail, after voters in 2017 approved a 1-mill tax hike for 20 years to pay for the jail and operations.

Schuster of Pew Charitable Trusts said he hopes the task force will gain new insight about rural incarceration from the August session in Traverse City.

“The task force is coming to northern Michigan to hear from community members here about what’s driving local incarceration.  The question of who’s filling Michigan’s jails has long gone unexamined, and the answers will come not just from policy experts, but also from those with personal experience in the justice system.”

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Fri, 08/23/2019 - 8:59am

Apparently this is rocket science.... Engler closed most of the State mental hospitals in the 90s. People have had less access to treatment for going on 30 years now. Mentally ill individuals end up in the criminal system instead of hospitalized because it isn't PC to "institutionalize" people in hospitals. Hummm, whatever might be going wrong???? (Note: It IS apparently okay to institutionalize people in jail/prison in preference to hospitals *WHAT!!!*) (Note #2: This is NOT cheaper, and none of us has saved ANY money on what we pay in taxes since the hospitals were closed). So let me develop a task force and try to figure out what is going on..... honestly!

Kevin of Waterford
Fri, 08/23/2019 - 9:57am

Bingo! That needs to be hammered home regularly.

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 9:02am

And he turn all but one of these hospitals into prison and tryed to sell them to his wife company that runs privet prisons!!! BUT Mike Cox put a stop to his plans!!!!!

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 10:41am

Do you think you can change all that you are complaining about? The past is the past and all the whining about it will not change it.

What is needed now is for people not just stand around a speculate on what got us here, but for people to start a conversation about what we want to achieve [the results to be delivered] and beginning a conversation with a diversity of perspectives to identify what are the barriers to get us where we need to be and then about how to get there.

Currently it seems people are more willing to manipulate the system, incarcerate people to protect those who are their victims rather than wait for a community wide conversation about changing the system.

Jerry hall
Fri, 08/23/2019 - 9:14am

How many of the inmates being held in jail are there from other counties but do not have charges in county that they are housed in? They need to stop the farm out system of inmates that will put some real numbers on the table to look at..

Doug L
Fri, 08/23/2019 - 9:18am

The wealthy get out on bail while the poor and mentally ill are held in jail. I cannot think of a more unfair system. I also cannot think of any worse way to waste of my tax dollars than holding people in jail because they cannot pay bail.

Sat, 08/24/2019 - 1:19pm

Maybe you should reread the article and consider the family of the woman who didn't put up bail, "included a woman held on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge because she failed to pay a $150 bond that could have gotten her out. “She struggles with mental illness. She doesn’t have a social network that’s there to help her,”. " Would it be better for her to be living with the family she is disrupting and all the harm that may entail, or what if the reason for not meeting bail was a preferred means of interim control?

You may condemn the system, but please consider unintended consequences of not having the current system.

The local Sheriffs are trying to adjust to the ways the current system is being used, and when you say," I cannot think of a more unfair system. ", you are comparing it to such incarceration systems as in Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, etc. I would much prefer our County Jail practices and facilities to any of those.

Fri, 08/23/2019 - 9:40am

It would be interesting to understand if the percentage of society that is deemed mentally ill is larger today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Or were those mentally ill patients just held in other buildings (state mental knstitutions) that were not called jails.

Is a person who can not afford $150 bail really a flight risk? I would think their options for escape are limited and a teather is probably cheaper than jail time. So many times these days we read about people “released on their own recognizance” . Why not the low level offenders?

Or maybe society today is less tolerant. Fifty years ago we might have tolerated the town drunk or the crazy person. Today we do not.

Chris H
Fri, 08/23/2019 - 11:25am

Statistics suggest that 6-7% of the population are legal "disabled" by mental illness at any given time. Since the Great Recession all agencies of government, whether controlled by Rs or Ds, have become particularly expert at monetizing every aspect within their purview. Government tries to stay in business and expand! I just paid a $159 building permit fee in Ann Arbor for a small project where the labor and materials cost just under $150 - ridiculous! Ten years ago this work didn't require a permit. That's government for ya!

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 9:06am

You right the republican controlled government has slowly taken away our freedoms!!!
OK GrandMold was a closet republican and an Engler clone, He destroyed Michigan and then left the state!!!

middle of the m...
Fri, 08/23/2019 - 11:15pm

"It would be interesting to understand if the percentage of society that is deemed mentally ill is larger today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Or were those mentally ill patients just held in other buildings (state mental knstitutions) that were not called jails."

I suspect you know the answer to this question. Care to tell us what happened?

"Is a person who can not afford $150 bail really a flight risk? I would think their options for escape are limited and a teather is probably cheaper than jail time. So many times these days we read about people “released on their own recognizance” . Why not the low level offenders?"

Comments like these lend me to think that you may have a heart. That is why Matt has been hitting you hard. What's wrong Matt? Don't have a heart?

Ferguson, Missouri . Nothing more should be need to be said.

The people who run any township, county, city, State or Nation will do what is best for the BEST.

If you are not the best? Get bent.

That is what conservatism IS.

Deal with it.

And Frankly, they put up a reality TV show host as a Presidential candidate.

Welcome to Hollywood conservatives!

The second actor YOU have elected into the highest office in the land.

Only the bestest and greatestest!

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 8:07am

What? I care so much about this issue, that rather than bail I'd offer the option of a 1-way ticket to California if they promise never to come back!

Fri, 08/23/2019 - 9:43am

There needs to be a study regarding the number of laws people could be fined or incarcerated for in 1960 in Michigan vs 2019 in Michigan. I bet you will find our Government - at all levels, has increased exponentially the number of things you can be fined or incarcerated for in those to years.

Fri, 08/23/2019 - 9:55am

Rural poverty is meaner than town poverty because there are no services for the folks who need them and I can't think of a way to get providers to move to rural areas except with total loan forgiveness. At this point, the previous poster is correct that housing the mentally ill in a state hospital is cheaper and more humane than locking patients in jails.

Fri, 08/23/2019 - 10:33am

There's a stat that's missing from this article: the percentage of county population in state prison. Ask MDOC for those numbers and you'll be shocked. Rural counties have a much higher percentage of their population in state prison than urban counties.

Why the high incarceration rates?

Mental health is noted in this article. Let's assume that the rate of mentally ill is pretty much the same anywhere. Rural counties generally have mental health care options so I'll be surprised if care availability is all that different from urban counties.

The answer to the disparity is politics more than anything. Rural Michigan counties are red counties, typically around 60% Republican. Republicans are generally law and order voters, who want to lock them up and throw away the key. They also don't want to spend money on social services, other than incarceration, thus fewer alternatives for law breakers.

They'll usually vote for new and bigger county jails, which leads to the build it and they will come syndrome. If beds are available in a county jail, the inclination is to fill er up.

An exception to this generalization is Otsego County. It's very red, 60% Republican, but they defeated a mileage for a new bigger jail 2 to 1. They then developed very low cost alternatives to jail: a day reporting system with daily substance abuse testing and classes related to what caused the criminal activity; a sheriff's work camp for unemployed convicts; expedited jail/bond procedures; specialty "courts" (substance abuse and mental health); improved probation and parole procedures; and, elected prosecutors without a hang-um high agenda, RHINO's, but at least they're labeled Republican on the ballot.

Otsego isn't the only county with a work crew jail alternative for criminals. Houghton County in the U.P. has used a variation of the concept for decades.

Fri, 08/23/2019 - 6:45pm

Reagan gutted mental health care in the 80s

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 9:11am

And John Engler turn all the mental health hospitals into prison except the Pontiac hospital> Mike Cox stop him from privatizing all the prison by his wife's company!!!

Stacey Thomas
Sat, 08/24/2019 - 2:05pm

Stop jailing for marijuana offenses.

Stacey Thomas
Sat, 08/24/2019 - 2:05pm

Stop jailing for marijuana offenses.

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 9:00am

Just shows one how the republicans have slowly taken away our freedoms!!!

Mary K. Freel
Sun, 08/25/2019 - 11:27am

It has been long known for those of us who live in the rural counties that the sentences and bail passed down by local judges are much worse than the sentences given out in the urban courts. A crime that would get you a light bail in Detroit means an insurmountable bail in Tuscola County. Sentencing guidelines don't touch the setting of bail and the judges in these small counties tend to view anyone who did a crime as the world's worst criminal. Until that viewpoint changes nothing will change.

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 9:10pm

This is how Republicans destroyed rural America, while pretending to be fighting FOR rural Americans:
-First they recruited rural people in the 80's by labeling Democrats as Anti-American, using abortion and other cultural issues to divide the populous.
-Next they cut social programs and mental health programs and justified it by saying, "We are at war with Socialism."
-Then they poured all that money into tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.
This is their MO: Demonize anyone who actually proposes mental health solutions as Socialist, but, when we have a mass shooting by a mentally deranged person, they propose doing more in the mental health area. Time goes by and they do nothing...and then it repeats...over and over and over again. COMPLETE HYPOCRISY !!!
The rural folks, being less educated and not so sharp, totally fall for the Republican BS, over and over again. Throw in the opiate epidemic in rural America and they are screwed by the people they support. Rural America needs to wake up and see where their best interests lie. Not in a Republican vision that drags them in with deception and then craps all over them.

Marlene Lott
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 11:35am

I live in Northern Michigan where there is NO INVESTIGATING WHATSOEVER, they arrest and have YOU PAY A LAWYER to do the INVESTIGATION THE COUNTY should have done. They are a "search and destroy" entity up here, NOT PROTECT AND SERVE.

James F Bish
Wed, 08/28/2019 - 9:57am

Correcting for all of the other variables & acknowledging that poverty impacts those variables as well, I suspect that the driving factor re inmate population increases is the dismal state of the livable wage issue. I suspect there is a strong correlation.