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

Lansing — Michigan should work to reduce driver's license suspensions, cut fine amounts and require defendants be tried within 18 months of their arrest, a state task force says.

The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration on Tuesday presented the recommendations and others to the state's legislative leaders.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who co-chaired the group, called the work that led to the recommendations "the deepest dive into the county jail system in the history of the state of Michigan."

"While the problems are great, there are solutions," Gilchrist said during a press conference inside the state Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, speaks at a press conference unveiling recommendations from the Michigan Joint Task Force on  Jail and Pretrial Incarceration on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.

The task force also recommended "presumptively" imposing sentences other than jail for non-serious misdemeanors and guaranteeing appearances before a judicial officer within 24 to 48 hours of arrest.

The latter recommendation would require a person be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest. Arraignment is when people are notified of the charges against them and allows a judicial officer to decide whether a person can be released. The deadline could be extended up to 48 hours for "good cause."

In some counties, a person arrested on a Friday evening currently may have to wait until the following Monday to be arraigned, said Judge Thomas Boyd, an Ingham County district judge who served on the task force.

As for requiring a trial within 18 months of an arrest, the task force said in the report its members met people who had been incarcerated for three to four years awaiting trial.

"The state should require firm statutory trial deadlines and eliminate the requirement that incarcerated defendants actively assert their speedy trial rights," the report added.

The requirement could be waived through an agreement with a defendant. But the report recommended "meaningful consequences" for failing to meet the time limit, including potential dismissal of the charges.

Boyd said there are some complicated felony cases where a defendant's trial takes place more than 18 months after an arrest. The judge described the cases as "outliers." Shortening the time between arrest and trial would require additional funding from the Legislature for services that are key to a trial, such as the state's crime laboratory, Boyd said.

But 18 months is a "realistic goal," he added.

The 21-member Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration  was appointed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The group has been meeting since July, determining ways to reform the state's jail system.

In less than 40 years, the number of people held in Michigan's county jails has nearly tripled. In 1975, the average daily jail population was 5,700. In 2016, the the average daily population was 16,600, according to the task force's report.

Policymakers must address the "large number of people whose lives are disrupted by short jail stays" and the "relatively small group of people whose long stays drive up county jail populations," the report said.

The task force was chaired by Gilchrist and Bridge McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and included state lawmakers, attorneys and local officials.

Members formally presented their recommendations on Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

Chatfield said it's unclear whether the Legislature will take up all of the recommendations as bills. And while task force leaders provided little information about an estimated cost to implement some of the reforms, Chatfield said, "You fund what your priorities are. Criminal just reform is a priority for us."

Not appearing at the Tuesday event was Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, who was part of the task force but abstained when the group voted on the report.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack present recommendations from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration to Senate Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speak Lee Chatfield on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.

In a statement to the task force last week, Nessel said the task force had made "great strides." But she also noted that she is the state's chief law enforcement officer and argued "reforms cannot be at the expense of the individuals the system was designed to protect."

"That role requires me to look at criminal justice reform with a 360-degree view, and to strike an appropriate balance between the impact of incarceration on offenders, the effect of reforms on the victims of crime, and the costs of those reforms to communities across this state," Nessel said.

She continued, "With that in mind, there were several areas in the task force report that, in my view, have yet to achieve this crucial balance of the stakeholders."

'Make the law make sense'

Among the group's new recommendations: Michigan should reduce the number of driver's license suspensions, which numbered 358,000 in 2018, for failure to appear in court and failure to pay fines and fees.

Fully half of the 250,000 criminal cases filed in Michigan in 2018 were for traffic violations, according to task force data — and that's not including charges for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That year Michigan had 7,217,833 licensed drivers.

The task force also found, in a 20-county sample of Michigan, that driving without a valid license was the third-most common reason for jail admissions. 

Michigan's suspension rate, 45.9 license suspensions per 1,000 people of driving age, is lower than Ohio (76.4), Indiana (275.3), Illinois (61.2) and Wisconsin (56.2), according to FreeToDrive.org, a project of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, whose tag line is that "poverty should never determine who is free to drive." 

The task force wants lower those numbers. States on the low end include Pennsylvania (12.3) and Oregon (13.7). 

McCormack has called license suspension reform "low hanging fruit for big improvements" in the quality of justice in Michigan. Gilchrist presented it as a matter of fairness.

"Not being able to pay money shouldn't cost people a license," Gilchrist said.

Detroit police Chief James Craig hailed the proposed reforms as a "great move."

"What makes Detroit so unique, out of all the places I've been, is the number of people who drive without a license," Craig said. "A lot of people can't afford car insurance. This has a direct impact on a person's ability to get a job. Public transportation is not always an option."

Traffic offenses fill jails

Robert Dunlap, chief of jails for the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, said a "significant" portion of Michigan's largest county jail population is incarcerated on traffic-related offenses.

He said unpaid fines and fees are "not a criminal offense ... they're more of a civil infraction. Making it a misdemeanor makes it a criminal matter when it shouldn't be."

In 2017, there were 14,515 misdemeanor bookings at the Wayne County Jail; 5,180 of them, or 35%, were for people driving on a suspended or revoked license, according to jail data.

Dunlap said that when he was a football player at Wayne State University, he was pulled over in Midtown because his turn signal wasn't working.

His birthday had passed days earlier, and his license had expired. He hadn't remembered to renew it.

"You know, I could arrest you," the officer said. Instead, he wrote a ticket. 

Asked how different his life might have been if he'd been jailed that day, Dunlap shuddered at the thought. 

"Thank God I never had to experience that," he said. 

Priya Sarathy Jones, national campaign director for the Washington, D.C.-based Fines and Fees Justice Center, told The News on Tuesday that Michigan is one of 44 states that suspend driver's licenses for unpaid fines and fees. About half of those states are expected to take up reform this year, she said. 

Non-payment of fees is due to poverty, she said, not a lack of will.

Costly traffic tickets and time-consuming court appearances "ask people to choose between life's essentials," she said. 

Jonathan Biernat, a Mount Clemens-based criminal defense and bankruptcy attorney who is president of the 1,300-member Macomb County Bar Association, applauded the effort.

"I don't think that people should be necessarily detained for not having a license. I see this a lot in the district courts, where a lot of times people are incarcerated because they are driving without a license. And I don't know that that's always the best way or the best use of resources."

cmauger@detroitnews.com

jdickson@detroitnews.com