Wayne County Jail population down hundreds during virus; tether population grows

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the month since the coronavirus reached Michigan, the Wayne County Jail population has fallen by more than 460 inmates, as hundreds of people are released from the jail as a precaution.

On March 10, the date of the first two reported coronavirus infections in Michigan, the jail's population was 1,381.

As of April 10, it is 917, and continues to fall by the day, as stakeholders from the sheriff's office, the prosecutor's office, and attorneys representing the jail's inmates come to a consensus on who can be released without fear they'll skip court dates or endanger public safety.

Ultimately, it is Timothy Kenny, chief judge of the Wayne County Circuit Court, who decides which people can be released and on what terms.

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

Beyond the administrative release process, defense attorneys have also had success securing the release of their clients through emergency bond hearings.

Chanta Parker, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service, which handles 25% of the felony public defender cases in Wayne County, has secured the release of 107 clients and convinced judges to modify bond to $7,500 or less for 35 people. Another 40 still face high bond, $20,000 or more, Parker said. Eight motions have not yet been heard.

When its clients are released, they're picked up via rideshare service and returned home.

"We want people in Detroit and Wayne County to know that we are here," Parker said. "We want to partner with them and provide that zealous representation."

Advocates for the incarcerated have argued that to be in a jail facility is tantamount to a death sentence during a pandemic.

It is on those grounds that stakeholders in the Wayne County justice system have collaborated to discuss who can safely be released. 

As of Tuesday, only people connected to felony cases or thought to be a danger were left at the jail, 953 of them. Since then, the population has fallen by dozens more people. 

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

The virus, which jumps from person to person in cramped, crowded spaces like jails, has hit sheriff's office staff harder than inmates. While one inmate has been confirmed to have coronavirus, 114 sheriff's office staffers have tested positive and two have died. 

Victoria Burton-Harris, a Detroit-based defense attorney at McCaskey Law, has filed emergency motions seeking the release of clients from the jail. She said previously area defense attorneys will send a "flood" of motions in the weeks to come.

"We know what's in there," Burton-Harris said. "We know what's coming for every single person in the facility, because social distancing is impossible in jail." 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has been one of the major voices in administrative jail releases. But she said there are some people whose release she would not support.

"Except in very rare circumstances, I am not a proponent of anyone charged or already convicted of a capital offense like murder, sexual assault, child and elder abuse, domestic violence, and other very assaultive offenses being released," Worthy said in a statement. "Extreme caution must be exercised in those cases."

While the physical jail population is dropping, the number of people monitored by tether has continued to rise, from more than 500 about a month ago to 766 as of April 10. When people are granted administrative release, Kenny says, he typically requires they be put on tether.

"Those people aren't in the jail but are still being supervised and monitored," said Robert Dunlap, chief of jails and courts for the sheriff's office. 

When the tether and incarcerated populations are combined, the jail is either locking up or monitoring about 1,700 people, down from about 2,190 in 2019. In 2018 that combined population averaged to 2,400-plus people a day.

More:Wayne County Jail study group to share findings to reduce incarcerations

Reducing the jail's headcount has long been a priority of local leader. The effort has sped up due to the virus, Judge Kenny said. 

Jail numbers were dropping even before the virus hit for much the same reason they are now: stakeholders believe some people are better rehabilitated than jailed and that resources outside of a jail setting are the best forum for it.


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