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Task force to research, recommend ways to reduce jail stays

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a 21-person bipartisan task force Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at the Hall of Justice in Lansing. The task force will review jail and court data in 2019 in order to find ways to reduce jail populations and length of stays.

Lansing — A bipartisan task force will tackle a comprehensive review of the state’s jail and court data to make recommendations on how to reduce incarceration statewide.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order creating the task force, signed Wednesday, comes as data shows Michigan’s jail population tripled over the last 35 years even as crime rates have dipped, the governor said.

“Something needs to be addressed here,” Whitmer said at a Wednesday press conference. "That's why we wanted to bring this group together and work in a coordinated fashion because as a state we have to be clear about who is in our jails and why."

The Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration will be supported by data and policy specialists from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based public policy nonprofit that was started by the four children of Sun Oil Co. founder Joseph Pew and his wife, Mary. The task force includes lawmakers, prosecutors, attorneys, judges and law enforcement.

The 21-member task force will review jail records and court data through 2019 so it can make recommendations in 2020.

Pew's contribution to the project amounts to roughly $1 million, which is expected to cover the entirety of the effort, Whitmer said. 

Supporting the initiative at the press conference were Attorney General Dana Nessel, legislative leaders, the Michigan Association of Counties and the Michigan Sheriff's Association. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack will serve as co-chairs of the task force. 

Recommendations would include jail alternatives, potential length of stay reductions, better pretrial decision making and better overall efficiency in the public safety and judicial system.

"We also need to examine the racial, gender, ethnic and geographic differences in how the pretrial system in particular is playing out across the state of Michigan," Gilchrist said. 

The current process, Nessel said, costs too much and results in higher recidivism rates. 

"Frankly, we're not doing a service to our crime victims," Nessel said. "The best thing that we can do to assist crime victims is to ensure that there are fewer crimes."

More than half of Michigan's 15,000 inmates are pretrial defendants and are housed at roughly $75 a day, raising the possibility of savings should the state reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, the Supreme Court said in a statement Wednesday.

“This task force will help us take a look from 30,000 feet and see how the whole system is operating,” McCormack said, noting one of the areas of focus will be the disproportionate experiences among low- and high-income defendants.

“Judges have a critical role to play to address these concerns,” McCormack said.

The data collected this year will examine who is being held in jail, why and for how long, McCormack said. 

"That's been the missing piece is there are 83 different counties that keep their data differently," McCormack said. "That's where Pew is really going to be helping us."

Pew Charitable Trusts approached the state last year after noting criminal justice reforms emerging from the House and Senate, said House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. 

Chatfield said he witnessed the realities of the criminal justice system as a child in Northern Michigan, where his father, Rusty Chatfield, participated in jail ministry.

"We see that our system is broken and it needs to be fixed," Chatfield said. 

In March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Democratic Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids introduced a 10-bill package aimed at curbing the state’s “pay or stay” cash bail system.

The package would stop counties form keeping low-income, low-risk offenders in jail because of an inability to make bail, unless those individuals present a flight risk. The legislation creates best practices for judges who are setting bonds, allows defendants to fill out a financial disclosure form and requires quarterly bail reports from district and circuit courts.

The package has yet to get a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee; similar legislation failed at the end of 2018.

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