Wayne County Jail cleared of all but felons; 1st inmate, 100th officer have COVID-19

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The only people left behind bars at the Wayne County Jail are those involved in felony cases or thought to pose a threat to public safety, Sheriff Benny Napoleon said Tuesday. 

The jail population sits at 953 as of Tuesday, almost 430 fewer inmates than on March 10, when it was 1,381.

"We've released everybody we could possibly release without causing a danger component," Napoleon said.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon

"If there's any misdemeanors (left), it's probably some of the new bookings that have come in for domestic violence, but it's mostly felons," said Robert Dunlap, chief of jails and courts for the sheriff's office. 

The reduction is due in part to fewer arrests being made, fewer warrants served and fewer court matters heard. But it also stems from a concerted effort between stakeholders in the Wayne County justice system to move inmates out of the path of a deadly virus that thrives on crowds, by way of administrative jail release.

More:Wayne Co. Jail releases pregnant, 'vulnerable' inmates due to virus risk

Timothy Kenny, chief judge of the Wayne Circuit Court, signs off on the administrative releases. 

"We're going through, looking at felony cases, trying to see which ones — when you balance the medical concern compared to the risk of public safety — to see if there's anyone additional who can be released," Kenny said. "That's something that has to be done carefully."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy called the reviews of the jail population, to see who can safely be moved out of the jail setting, a "fluid and daily process."

"A lot of the work has been done," Worthy said in a statement, "but I believe that we will always be considering more releases as this pandemic continues."

She said she would not be in favor of releasing people charged with or convicted of assaultive or abusive offenses.

"Extreme caution must be exercised in those cases," Worthy said. 

As that review process winds down, except for new arrivals and people getting a second look, Detroit-area defense attorneys are preparing a "flood" of emergency motions seeking the release of many of the remaining inmates, they say.

Attorneys always had the option of pursuing the emergency motions but came to believe that a lack of success with that effort would harm clients when their case came up for review for administrative release.

"If you take that shot and miss, you're done," said Victoria Burton-Harris, a Detroit-based defense attorney at McCaskey Law.

A jail sentence should not be a death sentence, Burton-Harris said. 

"What they've essentially done is turn a county jail sentence of a year or less into a death sentence, because we know what's in there," she said. "We know what's coming for every single person in the facility, because social distancing is impossible in jail."

Nicholas Buckingham, campaign director for Michigan Liberation, said not all felony charges are created equal, and that some of the low bond amounts the group has encountered attest to that. Some bond amounts are as low as $10, he said.

"If these people are accused of such heinous crimes, why are their bond levels so low?" Buckingham asked. 

Michigan Liberation, a Detroit-based nonprofit seeking criminal justice reform, was created in 2018 and has gained notoriety locally by doing Mother's Day bond-outs of black mothers from the Wayne County Jail. 

"Our community wants to see a rapid response bail-out to this COVID-19," Buckingham said. "We have people in our community who are afraid, and they're scared for their loved ones. These people want to see their family come home."

But, Dunlap said, "everybody who could be reviewed has been reviewed. We probably won't have as many releases now as we've had over the last week and a half."

On Tuesday, the sheriff's office confirmed its first inmate who tested positive and said that 100 staffers are now known to have had COVID-19. Two sheriff's office staffers died after contracting the virus. Michigan now has nearly 19,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 845 deaths. 

More:Detroit has 5,501 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 221 deaths from virus

All three county jails in Metro Detroit have had inmates contract the virus. Oakland County had the first, then Macomb. Last week, Michigan had its first prisoner die from the virus.

"How do we combat the virus when we have people on top of people?" Buckingham said.

As Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth told The News last week, "jails aren't built for mass quarantine."

Ashley Carter, a senior staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, questioned both the public health of the county jail setting, and the public safety implications of having so few officers available to deal with a large jail population.

"If you have all these officers who are sick with COVID-19, who should not be working, that means you don't have the population of officers to monitor the jail and keep it secure," Carter said.

Carter said the jail struggles with providing people the health care they need, a claim county officials admit. Napoleon has said many times that the jail is not a rehabilitative environment.

"On a good day, this jail is completely incapable of dealing with anyone's medical issues. It's absolutely ill-equipped to deal with a global pandemic. The only thing to do is release people," Carter said.

One argument area defense attorneys will make is that people nearing the end of their sentence are no more a threat to public safety than if they were released on schedule, a week or month later — but that those people would be much safer outside of jail.

"The argument of (a person's) danger to society becomes weaker and weaker the closer they get to that release state, because they're coming home no matter what," Burton-Harris said. "They have served their time, and that time was deemed sufficient to 'rehabilitate' them.

Burton-Harris added: "This is not something where we're going to sit back and allow people to die without fighting. We've seen, just within the last two to three weeks, that fighting will get us somewhere."


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