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Jail populations plunge in Metro Detroit as coronavirus spreads

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The jail population in Michigan's three largest counties — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb — is falling daily as officials scramble to remove people thought to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, but little risk to the general public if they were not behind bars.

But the slowdown of court activity, high quarantine numbers at area police departments, and a government-mandated lockdown that orders most people to stay at home, in most circumstances, are also contributing factors, officials said.

As of Wednesday, the Macomb County Jail population was 648.

On March 1, it was 875, and by the 10th it was still 837, said Sgt. Renee Yax, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office.

A jail cell inside the D block of the Macomb county jail, in Mt. Clemens.

Major Christopher Wundrach, a spokesman for the Oakland County Sheriff's Office, said the jail's population had fallen from 1,282 on March 1 to 1,016 as of Thursday.

In Wayne County, the jail population fell from 1,381 on March 10 to 1,134 on March 24.

All told, this means the population of Michigan's three largest county jails has fallen collectively by at least 740 this month.

More:Wayne Co. Jail releases pregnant, 'vulnerable' inmates due to virus risk

Jail populations aren't just falling in Metro Detroit, though; the trend is picking up statewide.

In a joint statement, Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and Matthew Saxton, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs' Association, wrote that "jail populations across Michigan have declined to between 25% and 75% below their maximum capacities" right now.

The corrections field is thought to be particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus, but to officers' high levels of contact with the general public and their colleagues, and their inability, in most cases, to work remotely. The joint statement offered guidance to all aspects of law enforcement on how they could mitigate that danger.

Judges and sheriffs should use the statutory authority they have to reduce and suspend jail sentences for people who do not pose a public safety risk.

Law enforcement should only arrest people and take them to jail if they pose an immediate threat to people in the community. 

Judges should release far more people on their own recognizance while they await their day in court.  For some, judges may want to release them under supervision or under a condition that they stay away from a particular place or person. 

And judges should use probation and treatment programs as jail alternatives. 

Michigan has 80 county jails. The statement came about as a way of giving law enforcement guidance on how it could limit the spread of a virus that thrives on large crowds packed into tight spaces.

"Sheriffs already run our largest mental health facilities in the state, and now they're going to run our largest COVID-19 facilities in the state?" McCormack said in a Friday interview. "How can we both reduce risk to the people we are charged with protecting, and in ourselves?"

McCormack was co-chair of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, which started meeting in the spring and presented its final report in January, urging reforms such as speedier trials and the suspension of fewer driver's licenses.

More:Task force suggests jail system changes: speed up trials, fewer license suspensions

"People should take comfort that we've already done a deep dive on all of that. We can safely reduce jail populations without threatening public safety," McCormack said. "Frankly, now that we know dense populations threaten public health (during the virus outbreak), it gives us the opportunity to run the experiment. Let's move forward with seeing what happens when we make sure our jails are used to contain the people who really do need to contain."

Michael Bouchard, sheriff of Oakland County, said the coronavirus has led his office to make requests to county judges that certain inmates be released from the jail's close quarters. 

"We really need to define, in some respects, who do we actually need to have locked up at this moment in time?" Bouchard said. "We're not saying 'let everybody out.'"

The focus is on two groups: people with medical challenges that are better served outside of a jail setting and people jailed on bonds of $1,000 or less — provided the charges they're in for are not assault — and there is no history of violence. Bouchard has made 42 requests on behalf of the first group and about 25 on behalf of the second. 

Only 16 people from the medically-challenged group have been approved thus far. Another "six or seven" were denied, and the rest are pending.

"It's by no means a slam dunk," Bouchard said. 

Bouchard stressed that jail numbers are down for a number of reasons right now.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order, issued Monday and in effect through April 13, means there is less criminal activity being reported to police. But even before Whitmer's order, bars, restaurants, gyms and large public gatherings had all been prohibited.

More:Stay-home order violators face $500 fines; jail possible

Warrants for low-level, non-violent offenses are not being served.

"We're not necessarily going to use resources right now to go find somebody that has a warrant for shoplifting  with our limited personnel who's focused on staying healthy —and bring in someone to take up a bed space" Bouchard said. "That's not to say we'll ignoring any crime that's in progress."

Bouchard said "a ton" of staffers are in quarantine right now and unavailable to work. Many were tested days ago and are awaiting results. 

"Probably in the next five days" the department will have someone confirmed to have contracted the virus, he said. 

As of Thursday, 60 people in Michigan had died of the coronavirus and about 2,850 people were confirmed to have contracted it, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

Corrections officers and police generally cannot work from home. They also have high levels of contact, both with the populations they serve and their colleagues.

Just this week in Metro Detroit, a commander at the Wayne County Jail, the leader of the Detroit Police Department's homicide unit, and a DPD dispatcher, 38, died from complications of the coronavirus. 

More:Detroit police civilian dispatcher, captain die of COVID-19

Eighteen Wayne County sheriff's staffers or contractors are confirmed to have the virus, as of Wednesday, while the Detroit Police Department started the week with 200-plus officers on self-quarantine.

The sheriff's offices in Oakland and Macomb counties, though, report no infections, either among their staffs or inmates.

Julie Bovenschen, administrator for the Macomb County Circuit Court, said that judges are "review(ing) their individual lists of defendants in the...jail for appropriate early release or bond," as well as facilitating emergency motions for bond or early release.

Few of the latter have come in thus far, Bovenschen said via email, but defense attorneys are able to file them to have a client considered for release.

"We anticipate more motions will be filed over the next week," Bovenschen wrote. 

Kevin Oeffner, administrator for the Oakland County Circuit Court, said they've reached out to the Oakland County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, and asked it to send circuit court judges "a list of inmates that might be candidates for medically-based reasons."

"It would be each judge’s discretion as to whether release would be granted or denied," Oeffner wrote. "The judges, of course, will consider each request on its merits and the safety of the public."

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75