In first meeting, state jail task force outlines goals, seeks solutions

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II will co-chair the first jail task force meeting with Michigan Supreme Court chief justice Bridget McCormack.

Detroit — One week ahead of its deadline, Michigan's Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration held its first public meeting Wednesday morning at Wayne State University Law School.

Lt. Gov Garlin Gilchrist II, co-chair of the task force, said that "this is our moment to create real change" and urged the group to consider the purpose of incarceration.

“Is this a person we’re angry with? Afraid of? Or afraid for?" he asked.

Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and task force co-chair with Gilchrist, noted the "political wind at our back," with Republicans, Democrats, law enforcement and activists agreeing that the status quo isn't working.

Lee Chatfield, a Republican and speaker of the Michigan House, gave brief remarks before the meeting.

“Because we believe people are created equal in the sight of God ... it’s important we’re honest with ourselves about why we’re falling short," Chatfield said. "Anyone can identify a problem. But it takes real leaders to present solutions."

With that, he left and the 21-member task force got to work. 

"Roughly half of the people held in Michigan's jails on any given day have not been convicted of a crime and are constitutionally presumed innocent as they await trial," reads a portion of the opening paragraph of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order establishing the task force. "Little statewide data exist to account for who is booked into local jails, how long they stay, and why."

More:Op-ed: Jail reform is a win for state and counties

The task force's final report is due on Jan. 10 and it must dissolve 90 days after submission of the report. The group must meet six times, publicly, and was required to hold its first meeting by July 31. 

Task force members, drawn from politics, law enforcement, criminal defense and activism, gave brief introductions detailing their experience in and with the justice system.

"Incarceration is always a policy failure," said Amanda Alexander, executive director of the Detroit Justice Center. Alexander said 60% of Wayne County Jail inmates haven't yet been tried, and are "having their lives completely upended because they can't afford to bail out."

Prentis Edwards, a judge on the Wayne County Circuit Court, was more cautious, telling his colleagues he hopes "any determinations are made judiciously, always taking into consideration the risks” of reforms. Judges, he noted, are criticized as being too hard or soft in their rulings, depending on the case. 

The task force convenes as two of three of Michigan's largest counties, Wayne and Macomb, are either building a new jail (Wayne) or pushing for the funds to do so (Macomb). 

"The elected leaders of this state have a strong interest in easing the burden on county budgets, taxpayers and citizens by ensuring jail beds are used in targeted ways that promote public safety and economic stability," a later portion of Whitmer's executive order reads.

One of the commission's charges is to expand jail alternatives. Wayne County has reduced jail head counts in recent years through increased use of tethering.

Wayne County's jail population has dwindled in recent years, as tethering via GPS has become a frequent alternative to incarceration, which costs taxpayers $123 per day per inmate.

In fiscal year 2017, the county jail's average daily population was 1,474. That year, an average of 690 people per day were monitored via tether rather than incarcerated. In 2014, the jail had an average of 2,200 inmates per day. So the population under monitoring by the Wayne County sheriff's office was the same years later, but fewer people are being physically jailed.

According to the Wayne County budget report for 2018-19, that shift "saved 237,250 jail bed days or $30 million savings to the General Fund."

Wayne County Jail currently has 2,951 adult beds, but is building a new facility some 671 beds smaller. 

But according to the Detroit Justice Center, an advocacy group that says it seeks to transform the justice system, Wayne County Jail would have only 750 inmates if not for inmates unable to pay bail.

In its fact sheet on the new county jail, the group asked "what if Wayne County could renovate an existing jail (such as the Division III facility, which is in better shape than the others), likely for a small fraction of the price?"

The price tag of the new jail: $533 million, of which Wayne County will pay $380 million and Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures will pay $153 million, plus cost overruns. 

The meeting ended with a rundown of national and Michigan-specific jail statistics, showing the growth of pretrial incarceration in jails, women in jails and that rural counties now jail more people in Michigan than urban counties, a story that's playing out nationally as well. 

Task force meetings are open to the public:

Aug. 23 Task Force meeting 2: Traverse City

Meeting:  9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; public testimony:  1:30-4 p.m.

Sept. 20 Task Force meeting 3: Grand Rapids

Meeting:  9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.; public testimony:  1:30-4 p.m.

Oct. 18 Task Force meeting 4: Detroit

Meeting:  9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; public testimony:  1:30-4 p.m.

Nov. 19 Task Force meeting 5: Lansing

Meeting:  10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; public testimony:  1:30-4 p.m.

Jan. 9 Task Force meeting 6: Lansing

9:30-11 a.m., final report and recommendations released