Wayne County's challenge: 'Institutionalize' jail reforms forced by COVID crisis

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Since the coronavirus reached Michigan three months ago, the population of the Wayne County Jail has fallen by 40%. There are now more people on tether supervision than behind bars.

The challenge now, according to a new study by the Vera Institute of Justice, is to institutionalize those changes into long term policy.  

"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought devastation and tragedy," the institute writes in its coronavirus-themed preface, which acknowledges the report was prepared before the global pandemic.

"However, it has also shown us that significant jail decarceration is possible within an extremely short period of time," the report continues. "Wayne County, like other jurisdictions across the country, has an opportunity to use lessons from this rapid jail population reduction to continue to decarcerate as regular life resumes."

Wayne County leaders asked the New York-based Vera Institute to study the jail as part of its investigation into dozens of jails across the country. 

Timothy Kenny, chief judge of the Wayne Circuit Court, chaired a working group of local stakeholders, while the Hudson-Webber Foundation contracted Vera for the technical analysis.

A sign in front of the Wayne County Jail - Division 3 William Dickerson Facility in Hamtramck.

"I thought it was quite helpful for them to come in and provide an examination of who was in the jail, what brought them to the jail, and how long they were there," Kenny told The News. "I think already we have seen changes that we have already been able to implement. There are more cases in which defendants who are charged with ordinance violations and non violent misdemeanors are getting personal bonds."

The Wayne County study group was led by Kenny and included Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who runs the jail, Prosecutor Kym Worthy, the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, and area defense attorneys.

Napoleon has long spoken of the need to separate true public safety threats, or "people we're afraid of" and should be jailed, from "people we're mad at," who could be punished without being jailed.

Even the shortest of jail stays can ruin someone's livelihood, Kenny said.

"A single mother, for example: Let's say it takes that individual five or six days to get friends or family to assemble the money to pay for a low bond," Kenny said. "She may lose her job. She may lose her ability to pay rent. Her children may be placed in a foster home." 

The report comes at a time when Wayne County is building a new criminal justice campus on Detroit's east side — at Interstate 75 and Warren — and as the jail is in the midst of a federal class-action lawsuit regarding conditions.

For the duration of the Vera study, the jail has been under a consent decree due to local class-action litigation on jail conditions that dates back to 1971.

Kenny oversees the consent decree and as such is empowered to determine who should be in the jail and who should not. As the coronavirus ripped through Michigan, Wayne County had an easier time turning to administrative release compared to Oakland and Macomb counties.

In those counties, the judge who sent the person to jail must agree to their release. Wayne County's consent decree puts that choice in Kenny's hands.

Vera found that only about half the jail's inmates are being held pretrial; that number was thought to be closer to 60% prior to the study. About 34% are serving sentences handed down by a judge. The remaining 15% are being held for another agency or on probation violations.

It also found that 53% of jail bookings are for low-level misdemeanors or ordinance violations. In just a three-year time span, from 2015 to 2017, jailing people on misdemeanors cost Wayne County taxpayers $93 million, The News reported previously.

More:Wayne County Jail's $93 million misdemeanor problem

Prosecutor Kym Worthy said those issues are beyond the reach of her office, which handles felony cases. Misdemeanors and ordinance violations are prosecuted by city attorneys.

But the jail population is under Kenny's purview. 

"I can deal with that, whether it's a pandemic or not," Kenny said. "I can administratively release people from the jail."

Sha'Teina Grady El,  who was punched repeatedly by a Washtenaw County Sheriffs Deputy, chants and marches with hundreds of supporters as they shut down Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor on Friday, May 29, 2020 for their protest.

And he has. Since March 10, Kenny said he has signed at least 200 administrative releases. One of the most prominent was that of Sha'Teina Grady El, 45, who was filmed being punched by a Washtenaw County deputy sheriff last week.

More:Woman in video of police punch released, urges 'constitutional' police action

Because she had warrants in cases in Canton Township and Taylor, when Grady El — whose name on some records is Shatina Grady and Shatina Grady El — was released from the Washtenaw County Jail, she was taken straight to Wayne County Jail.

Kenny signed her release Friday, in lieu of a scheduled hearing. Grady El was out in time to speak at an early afternoon protest held in her honor at the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office.

Even though all of her cases involved run-ins with the police, Kenny granted the release based in part on her injuries, but also on a determination she would make any court dates in the future. 

To tether or not to tether?

The Wayne County Jail population is about 840 right now, with more than 1,030 people monitored via tether. For the first time in its history, the county is monitoring more people electronically than in person. 

But even before the virus, the jail's primary mechanism of reducing its population was arranging administrative releases for people believed to pose little public safety threat, on the condition they be monitored via tether. Administrative releases have also been granted for people whose legal troubles are believed to owe to mental health or substance abuse issues, a model Wayne County learned in studying Miami-Dade County, Florida.

More:Wayne County studies 'Miami model' for mental health jail diversion

The Vera study argues that "the amount of time a person is ordered to wear a tether should be limited, and the financial burden on those being monitored should be minimized."

Judge Timothy Kenny of Wayne County Circuit Court

Overall, it argues, the county should pull back on tether use.

"Use of tether has expanded significantly with the increased number of administrative jail releases," the report notes. "While this may have been a way to quickly release large numbers of people from the jail, we believe Wayne County still needs to review and reduce its extensive use of electronic monitoring as a means of releasing people from jail pretrial."

Napoleon, the sheriff, disagreed.

"That's not going to happen," Napoleon said, adding that the program costs users about $30 a month. 

A night in the jail costs taxpayers about $150.

"We believe the tether program is the best way to balance public safety against overcrowding at the jail," Napoleon said. 

Sheriff: New jail won't drive incarceration

The report notes that Wayne County is building a 2,280-adult bed jail at its criminal justice campus, and worries the jail will meet that capacity. 

"Community members have raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the process and that building a new jail will unnecessarily expand the use of incarceration and reverse the steady decline of the jail population," the report read. "These concerns have resonance not only based on Wayne County’s previous experience of quickly filling and often exceeding capacity in newly built jail facilities, but also on experience nationally, where jail incarceration rates often rise to fit expanded jail capacity."

Napoleon, though, said that hasn't been the experience in Wayne County. 

"We have a capacity of almost 3,000 people, and I have never come close to that in my 11 years" as sheriff, Napoleon said, referring to the combined capacity of the three adult jails. "To the best of my recollection, the highest we've had has been 2,200."

A rendering of the still-under-construction Wayne County Jail, off Interstate 75 and East Warren.

From July 2018 to June 2019, the jail had 1,701 inmates per day, on average. That is 25% fewer inmates than in the same time period in 2014 and 2015. 

And the numbers kept falling from there.

Kenny said the group that meets to determine who can be safely released — which consists of representatives from the prosecutor's office, the sheriff's office, jail medical staff and attorneys representing inmates in the class-action suit — will continue its work, even after the virus passes.

One group that's been left out of the discussion but will be included in the future, Kenny said: district courts, which handle the misdemeanor and ordinance cases.

"What I envision is, we would try to gather to stakeholders to put together a protocol," Kenny said. "What I would like to do is have a situation where we have a protocol wherein I can just be notified the boxes have been checked, and we can release this particular individual."


Twitter: @downi75