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Nessel town hall: Michigan should be 'smart,' not just tough, on crime

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Note: This article has been corrected to indicate the Pew Charitable Trusts handles technical analysis for a state task force designed to look at issues in incarceration.

Ann Arbor — The state of Michigan is turning from tough on crime to "smart on crime," with a focus on education and career training for inmates.

"We want to make prison time productive time," said Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Heidi Washington escorts Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein in March 2015 as he visits the Charles Egler Correctional Facility at the Jackson prison complex. Washington, now director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, said at a Monday town hall that prison time should be "productive time."

Washington oversees one in four employees of the state who supervise and serve 38,005 prisoners. She joined state Attorney General Dana Nessel and others for a forum Monday on how the state is remodeling the rules for incarcerated populations. 

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“The department has changed. We’re evolving," Washington said.

Next month, recommendations are expected from a state task force designed to look at issues in incarceration, including mental health reforms and those who are stuck in the jail pipeline because they are unable to pay bail or tickets.

The number of inmates, Washington said, is so important that she checks it daily. In 2007, Michigan reached a high in its prison population, with more than 51,000 inmates.

Back then, about half of prisoners who left the system would return within a three-year period. Today, with 13,000 fewer inmates, that number is at 29%.

Much of that evolution, she said, comes from a focus on education and skill-training programs. The MDOC has two Vocational Village programs.

The Vocational Villages offer segregated housing for enrollees, who spend their days training in what Washington calls "high demand" career fields, including braille transcription, tree-trimming and computer coding.  

More:'Something (to) be proud of': Women join Michigan prison Braille transcribers

More:Prisoners gain opportunity in growth industry: tree trimming

More:Coding classes help inmates prepare for productive life outside prison

“It's amazing to see the hope that exists there," Washington said.

Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, along with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, is co-chair of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrail Incarceration. Next month, the 21-member working group will produce recommendations for reform for policymakers.

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

McCormack said that before the task force started its work, there was no good data on who is in the state's county jails and why.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is handling technical analysis for the task force, has found "two separate populations, which have their own set of solutions," McCormack said. There are inmates serving short stays that are just long enough to throw their lives off course, and inmates who enter the system regularly and stay for a long time.

State Sen. Irwin urged policymakers to invest in Michigan's mental health system, which experts say deteriorated decades ago and has never been rebuilt.

“(Jails and prisons) are the largest provider of mental health services in Michigan, and that is wrong," Irwin said. "That's something we should not be proud of." 

Nor is it safe, McCormack said. 

“There are police officers and deputy sheriffs” who have been put in a front line role in mental health in Michigan," McCormack. "That's not safe for anyone."

While police officers have  been trained in crisis intervention and mental health first aid, panelists said health care for these populations should come from the medical system, not the legal system.

More:Police, corrections officers train to help mentally ill

In many counties in Michigan, McCormack said, “there is no place to put them but the jail.”

Nessel recalled how quickly the breakdown of the mental health system in the 1990s had an effect on her work as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County.

“It was only a matter of hours, or days, until the people released (from the shuttered Lafayette Clinic) made their way down to Wayne County Jail," Nessel said. "Had they received proper treatment, (they)never would’ve ended up in jail or prison in first place.”

But it's not just people with mental health issues who are being pushed toward the justice system, Nessel said. Poor people are, too.

One change to help keep people with financial troubles out of jail, she said, is allowing motorists to pay traffic tickets in installments, rather than all at once.

When people can't afford the ticket and their license is suspended, they could be arrested if they're pulled over, she said. 

“We’re criminalizing being poor in this state," Nessel said. "We’re placing people into these no-win situations.”

If there is an impediment to reform in Michigan, it's a lack of resources, Nessel said. 

“The biggest way to deter criminal activity is by giving children a future. When we don’t properly fund public schools, or we make college incredibly expensive, we ensure people aren’t going to be able to earn adequate income,” increasing the chance they'll be involved in criminal behavior, Nessel said.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, said that when the Legislature was passing the Raise the Age law in October, which says that 17-year-old defendants are not to be automatically tried as adults, "the major resistance to that was financial," from counties that did not want the responsibility for expensive juvenile inmates pushed off onto them, and away from the corrections system. 

As lawmakers consider bills to allow for the automatic expungement of certain felonies, Rabhi said, money is also a concern for some lawmakers, as the technology needed would cost money to develop.

“When we say ‘and liberty and justice for all,’ we have to mean it," Rabhi said.

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