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Whitmer and Republican leaders join forces to study Michigan jail reforms

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday launched a bipartisan effort to study Michigan’s crowded county jail system and recommend policy changes to cut costs and reduce the number of return offenders.

Through an executive order, Whitmer created the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration​, which is to report its findings — and suggested policy recommendations — by January.

Whitmer, joined by state Republican elected leaders and others, said Michigan’s county jails continue to lock up more offenders, often before trial, as Michigan’s jail populations have tripled during the past 35 years. This, despite falling national crime rates in recent decades. The leaders said state government doesn’t have a full picture of how the county jail system is working across all 83 counties, the impact of incarceration on county budgets, or how policy choices affect who winds up in jail.

Related: After years of impasse, bipartisan Lansing drive for criminal justice reform

“As a state, we have to be clear about who is in our jails, and why,” Whitmer told reporters shortly before signing the executive order. “And right now, we lack statewide data and oversight that we need.”

The task force will be aided by Philadelphia-based The Pew Charitable Trusts, which will help collect and analyze data from Michigan’s 81 county jails. (Two other counties, Keweenaw and Oscoda, don’t operate their own jails and instead contract with neighboring counties, officials said.)

Pew said it will fund the project at no cost to the state or individual counties and commit eight full-time staff members to the project. Whitmer pegged the organization’s commitment at $1 million.

The effort has bipartisan support among Michigan policymakers, including Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel and GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

“Criminal justice reform should never be a partisan issue,” Chatfield told reporters Wednesday during the executive order signing event. “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.”

Nessel, a Democrat who worked as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney prior to being elected Attorney General, said Wednesday at the executive order signing event: “I have waited my entire career to see this kind of bipartisan support and commitment to criminal justice reform.”

Michigan’s elected leaders in February sent a letter to Pew asking the organization to offer technical help on the criminal justice study. Pew chose Michigan out of a number of states that sought similar assistance because it recognized the state has ongoing political momentum around criminal justice reform, and that the organization’s data analysis could be valuable to future reform proposals, said Terry Schuster, an associate manager at Pew.

Wednesday’s announcement was just the latest indication of broad bipartisan cooperation in Lansing — where Democrats hold the offices of governor and attorney general and Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature — on criminal justice reform measures. Legislation to reform Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture process, to require a criminal conviction before police could seize personal property, were among the first bills introduced this term in both the state House and Senate, and remain pending.

The House and the Senate each are moving legislation that would treat 17-year-olds as juveniles in the criminal justice system, while lawmakers also are looking to overhaul the state’s cash bail system.

“The leadership offices in the Legislature and the governor’s office have all said there’s a moment in time when a whole lot of reform is possible,” Schuster told Bridge, adding that Pew previously studied state prison populations and is now beginning to study county jail systems. “Building on that momentum was pretty appealing to us.”

Michigan had an estimated 16,350 people in local jails in 2013, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, said in a news release that more than half of inmates held in Michigan county jails are awaiting trial, and that it costs an average of roughly $75 a day to house them.

The project will focus on the entire spectrum of the criminal justice process, from arrest to pretrial decisions to sentencing.

The goals of any policy recommendations, according to Whitmer’s order, are to expand the use of alternative programs to jail, reduce the length and costs of an inmate’s stay in a county jail, use data and evidence to improve the pretrial process and the efficiency of the criminal justice system, support crime victims and ensure that any laws and policies uphold constitutional rights, such as the presumption of innocence and a fair trial.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II along with McCormack will lead a 21-member temporary task force created under Whitmer’s executive order. Both said during Wednesday’s event that the criminal justice system has a disproportionate effect on poor people, who, as the ACLU noted in a suit filed in Detroit this week, often spend more time in jail because they can’t afford bail.

That can lead to broken families, and the loss of income, jobs, housing and quality of life, they said. Some might plead guilty to go home, only to wind up with a criminal record following them throughout life.

On any given day, half of the people locked up in county jails have not been sentenced, said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association and former Allegan County sheriff, who also attended Wednesday’s event.

The costs to house them are the same as to house someone who has been convicted of a crime, Koops said, but people who haven’t been sentenced can’t receive treatment or rehabilitation programs with those dollars because they’re presumed to be innocent.

Even though many are only behind bars for a few days, Koops said, it’s long enough to cause them financial harm.

“We see hundreds of cases over our career, thousands often, and we try to make the best decisions in each one,” Justice McCormack said. “But we rarely get the opportunity to see the results of our decisions in the aggregate.”

That’s what the task force is intended to change, she said.

Whitmer will appoint the 21-member panel next month. It will consist of people who have been affected by the criminal justice system, including survivors and victims’ advocates, former inmates, people who work in community corrections or who handle pretrial services, and public defenders or defense attorneys who represent indigent people.

The task force also will include community, business and/or faith leaders, a county prosecutor and police chief, county commissioners and county sheriffs who represent counties with more and fewer than 200,000 people, and circuit and district court judges.

Additionally, Nessel or her representative will have a seat, and the Republican and Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate each will be able to appoint a state lawmaker to the body.

The task force will be subject to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. It will meet for the first time by July 31. Its report and policy conclusions are due by Jan. 10, 2020, in time for legislation to be proposed and passed during the two-year legislative term.

“We have the opportunity here in Michigan to make our state an example for the country,” Whitmer said, “and set a nationwide standard for jail and pretrial reform.”

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