Wayne County Jail study group to share findings to reduce incarcerations

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — An advisory committee convened to consider options to bring down Michigan's largest county jail population will share initial findings in a public forum Thursday at Wayne State University Law School, the group announced.

More:Wayne County advisory commission digs into jail data

The Wayne County Jail Population Study Advisory Committee contracted the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice to conduct the technical analysis. The project is funded by a $94,500 grant from the Hudson-Webber Foundation.

At Thursday's event, the committee is expected to discuss initial findings, "joined by researchers and advocates, who will share their work to create better outcomes for all Wayne County communities," according to its statement. There will also be a question-and-answer opportunity. 

Wayne County Jail has an average daily population of about 1,600, said Robert Dunlap, chief of jails. Another 650 or so people are monitored through electronic tethers.

Timothy Kenny, chief judge of Wayne County Circuit Court, said members of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's statewide jail diversion task force will be in attendance. 

"It’s a benefit to have this kind of data and analysis shared with us," Kenny said. "What does the best evidence show? We want to make sure that the public is protected, that people show up to their court dates, and that poverty doesn't become an essential factor in whether a person is free or locked up." 

Policymakers will also discuss what barriers can be removed to help people show up at their court dates, and avoid bench warrants. One possible solution: a phone call or a text messaged-reminder from the court system. 

"If you have a doctor's appointment, you get a reminder," Kenny said. "That's something the courts should take a look at."

Stakeholders involved in the committee include the sheriff's office, which operates the jail system; office of County Executive Warren Evans; Detroit Police Department; Wayne County Commission; Third Circuit Court; county’s criminal defense bar association, State Court Administrative Office, and the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, among others, Melanca Clark, president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, previously told The News.

“The prospect of a new jail presents a critical opportunity for stakeholders and policymakers that make decisions that impact the jail to examine the drivers of the jail population, and to review policies and practices in the local system that impact local incarceration,” Clark said in a statement. 

The new Wayne County Jail is expected to open in 2022.

The Wayne County jail study is one of a multitude of jail diversion efforts in southeast Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has convened a statewide task force in an effort to reduce county jail populations. That task force is composed of representative from urban, suburban and rural counties who can speak to the unique challenges of their communities.

And a Flinn Foundation-funded effort on mental health jail diversion has worked to give policymakers and police in Wayne County tools to seek treatment for that population, rather than jail.

Wayne County has studied what's worked elsewhere.

The "Miami model" for mental health diversion seeks to treat people whose criminality stems from mental illness or substance abuse. Miami-Dade County, Florida, now diverts both misdemeanor and non-assault felony cases where mental illness is believed to have played a role, and is building a comprehensive jail diversion center, slated to open in 2021, offering a range of services from substance abuse counseling to culinary arts training to tattoo removal.

Police working in Wayne County have also begun training to form crisis intervention teams who handle police runs with a suspected mental health nexus.

"We want to be able to intervene in situations where someone might be in a crisis and not necessarily have committed a crime, but if not properly detected and addressed could lead to a crime," Dunlap has said. "We're trying to get in front of that."

When and where:

4-6 p.m.Thursday, Oct. 17

Wayne State University Law School

471 West Palmer, Room 1545

Detroit, MI  48202