Wayne County Jail COVID-19 releases include violent criminals

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — When a Wayne County judge announced eight months ago that he would begin releasing jail inmates in response to the coronavirus outbreak, he said people accused of violent crimes likely would stay behind bars.

But since the COVID-related releases began in March, concerns about the virus have prompted Wayne Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny to free at least 35 Wayne County Jail inmates who were accused or convicted of violent crimes, according to a Detroit News review of jail records.

Among those released: four men who were convicted of criminal sexual assault, and 14 others who were convicted of assault. One of the convicted sex offenders is back in jail after prosecutors say he got out and raped three women at knifepoint.

Judge Timothy Kenny of Wayne County Circuit Court

Dozens of other jail inmates who currently are charged with or were convicted of nonviolent crimes, but who have had previous violent convictions, also were released because of COVID-19, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Kenny has not returned phone calls seeking comment. In March, the judge told The News he didn't plan to release anyone accused of committing violent crimes.

"Those (jail inmates) who are charged with serious, violent felonies, who were not given a bond or able to post bond, their circumstance is unlikely to change," said Kenny, adding inmates accused of domestic violence also would likely stay in jail.

But between March and September, records show Kenny freed at least seven Wayne County Jail inmates who were convicted of domestic violence and were either serving out their sentences in the jail or awaiting transport to prison.

In one of those cases, Kenny released a man after he'd pleaded guilty to domestic violence and assaulting a pregnant woman — a crime that occurred while the man was on probation for a previous felonious assault, a case that Kenny also presided over. The man also had a drug conviction and multiple probation violations on his record.

Not just in Detroit

Detroit police Chief James Craig said the release of violent criminals likely is contributing to a significant spike in homicides and nonfatal shootings this year.

"This isn't just happening in Detroit," he said. "Cities across the country have seen violent crime go up. It's not rocket science — when you let violent criminals out of jail, you run the risk of having more violent crime. If anyone thinks releasing these violent offenders back into the community isn't having an effect on crime, they're sorely mistaken."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

This year, Detroit's homicides have increased by about 20%, while nonfatal shootings are up about 50%. Several other large cities across the country have seen even higher increases in violent crime. Craig and other police officials nationwide blame myriad issues, including bail reform, disrespect for officers and COVID-related jail releases for the increases.

Others dispute the notion that coronavirus-related jail releases are causing crime to spike. Advocates for inmates say the releases are crucial to the health of millions of people, most of whom are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent.

"The fact is there's just no way to protect people in the Wayne County Jail," said Casey Rocheteau, spokeswoman for the Detroit Justice Center, which was one of several organizations that filed a lawsuit against Wayne County calling for inmates to be released to avoid COVID-19 infection. 

"This is a deadly, contagious virus, and nobody deserves to die just because they're locked up," Rocheteau said. "I understand having a handful of folks get out of jail who may or may not do harm is a scary thought for some people, but they have families who don’t want to see them die just because they may have made mistakes."

But Craig, who in March contracted COVID-19, said only nonviolent criminals should be released.

"This virus is serious, and if someone is involved in a nonviolent crime, and they don't have a history of violence, I totally agree we should let them out of jail," he said. "But violent criminals? Come on, now."

Who decides on releases

Officials from the Wayne County sheriff's and prosecutor's offices make recommendations about which inmates should be released, although the final decisions are made by Kenny. Most of those released have been required to wear tethers, county records show.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Chief of Wayne County Jails Robert Dunlap both said they are not recommending the release of violent criminals.

"The only way a person gets released is they served their time, or they’re released by court order," Dunlap said. "You’d have to talk to the folks making the decisions. I don't recall us recommending any violent criminals be released."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy

Worthy said she agreed to the release of one allegedly violent criminal, a 65-year-old man whose case was among the 11,000 unattended rape kits found in a Detroit police property room in 2009.

The man, who was awaiting trial on first-degree criminal sexual assault charges, was released April 2 because of his advanced age and health problems, assistant prosecutor Maria Miller said. 

"He became terminally ill while incarcerated and it was determined that he should be released," Miller said in an email. "Prosecutor Worthy agreed with his release. There was a court hearing to establish the seriousness of his condition and the appropriateness of his release."  

Otherwise, Miller said her office isn't recommending violent criminals be freed.

"Prosecutor Worthy has not agreed to the release of violent criminals because they are a potential danger to the community and themselves," Miller said. "She includes in this category of violent cases domestic violence felony or misdemeanor cases.

"Judge Kenny is ultimately the person determining who will be released. Prosecutor Worthy believes that Judge Kenny has been very responsible about not releasing violent criminals."

Craig disagreed.

"This judge needs to do more diligence when it comes to deciding who gets released," the chief said. "I don't see how you can justify letting someone out who has multiple violent convictions on their record. Then, if the crime rate goes up, people won't be asking the judge about it — they'll come knocking on my door."

Miller said prosecutors look at several criteria before recommending an inmate for release.

"The person must not be likely to reoffend while out and not be a danger to the community or themselves," she said. "Also, medical conditions of the inmates are taken into consideration."

Releasing the data

In June, The News sent a Freedom of Information request to the Wayne County Sheriff's Office seeking a list of Wayne County Jail inmates who’d been released because of COVID-19 concerns. But the county only sent information from March 19-April 10.

Officials could not explain why only a few weeks of data was released in response to The News’ request, but a second FOIA seeking a complete list was submitted. The News recently received an updated list of inmates released through Sept. 21, the day the second FOIA request was filed.  

Although Craig and other police officials nationwide have attributed recent violent crime increases to the COVID-19 "compassionate releases," the American Civil Liberties Union insists freeing jail inmates due to virus concerns has not resulted in more crime.

The ACLU in July released a study that looked at 29 cities with jails that released inmates, including Detroit, and found that crime in those communities had gone down.

"We found that the reduction in jail population was functionally unrelated to crime trends,” the report says. “In fact, in nearly every city explored, fewer crimes occurred between March and May in 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019, regardless of the magnitude of the difference in jail population."

But that study only looked at overall crime, not violent crime. In most of the cities cited in the ACLU study, including Detroit, overall year-to-date crime numbers have dropped over 2019 — driven mostly because of a steep reduction in property crime — while violent crime has increased. 

Criminal justice experts attribute the drop in property crime to more people staying at home because of COVID-19, deterring break-ins and other property offenses.

The ACLU study pointed out that Chicago's overall crime dropped by 26% during the period studied — but violent crime in Chicago has exploded this year. Through October, there were 2,768 shootings and 655 homicides, increases of 51% and 52%, respectively, over the same period in 2019.

Nationwide, there have been instances of people who allegedly committed new violent crimes after being released from jail because of COVID-19 concerns.

In Maryland, Ibrahim Bouaichi was released from jail in April while awaiting trial in the 2019 rape of Karla Gonzalez. Three months after his release, investigators say Bouaichi shot and killed his accuser outside of her apartment, and later committed suicide while being pursued by police.

Also in Maryland, Justin Wilson was arrested in July after being accused of fatally stabbing a man. Wilson had been released three months earlier from jail, where he'd been awaiting trial on theft charges. In Colorado, Cornelius Haney allegedly killed a woman about a month after he was released from jail, where he was being held on robbery charges.

Jail inmates in Hawaii, Colorado and Florida who were released due to COVID-19 concerns also have since been re-arrested and charged with homicide.

Freed in Wayne Co.

According to Wayne County jail officials, eight of the inmates who'd been released from the jail from March to September because of the virus have been charged with new crimes they allegedly committed after being freed. Among the charges: Criminal sexual conduct, home invasion, drug possession, and breaking and entering.

Tyler Cole allegedly held three women prisoner at knifepoint and raped them less than four months after he'd been released from the Wayne County Jail, where he'd been serving a 90-day jail sentence for attempted breaking and entering and malicious destruction of property.

Tyler Cole

Cole had been incarcerated in 2011 for twice failing to register as a sex offender, following his 2004 criminal sexual assault conviction as a minor. 

Among the violent Wayne County Jail inmates released was 42-year-old Jackie Franks, who was freed May 22. Franks had pleaded guilty to domestic violence, assaulting a pregnant woman and malicious destruction of property.

Jackie Franks

Franks was on probation for a 2017 felonious assault in which he assaulted the pregnant woman on Aug. 8, 2019. He was sentenced to three years in prison on Nov. 20, 2019, the same day he was “discharged without improvement” from his probation in the 2017 assault case.

Franks' court-appointed attorney, Susan Dunn, said she stopped representing him after he was sentenced in November 2019. Franks has no current lawyer listed on the Wayne County Circuit Court's website.

Franks’ criminal record goes back to 1999, when he pleaded guilty to selling marijuana and was sentenced to three months of probation. In 2001, he pleaded guilty to selling cocaine and was given two years’ probation. Within four months of his sentence, he had violated the terms of his probation, and was sentenced to a year in prison, court records show.

In 2017, Franks pleaded guilty to assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, and on July 6, 2017, Kenny sentenced him to 1-10 years in prison. 

In a separate 2017 case that was also being heard by Kenny at the same time, Franks was charged with felonious assault and domestic violence. On July 6, 2017, the same day Kenny sentenced Franks to prison on the other assault case, the judge handed down a three-year probation sentence. Within two years, three warrants for probation violation had been issued against Franks.

Also recently released from the Wayne County Jail were Jameel Bradley and Kaylin Drewery, both of whom were convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, meaning their victims were either aged 13-16, or the abusers were in positions of authority over them.  

According to jail records, Bradley was released April 29, and Drewery on May 12. There is no record of their cases on the Wayne Circuit Court's website, and when asked about their convictions, Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said in an email she could not discuss either defendant's record.

A police source familiar with the investigations told The News that Bradley and Drewery were adjudicated under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which allows convicted criminals ages 17-24 to have their records expunged if they don't commit new crimes. Under the act, prosecutors and police aren't allowed to publicly discuss the cases.

Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel for the Michigan ACLU said criminals — even alleged or convicted violent criminals — shouldn't be put at risk of possibly dying after contracting the coronavirus.

"No matter what someone has done, or is alleged to have done, Michigan does not have the death penalty, and that is the very real risk that incarcerated people face when the pandemic sweeps through jails and prisons, as is happening throughout the state and nation," Buddin said in an email.

Craig said the early releases of violent criminals are making his job tougher.

"I think there needs to be more thought given into who should be released," he said. "If we’re talking about someone who has been a nonviolent offender, whether it’s drugs, property crimes or whatever, that makes sense.

"But when you start introducing someone with a history of violence back into the community before their time, we run a risk of increasing violent crime. We're really setting ourselves up for bad things to happen."

Buddin said keeping inmates in jail doesn't make society safer.

"As to Wayne County Jail, and all jails, people who are locked up have either been charged with a crime and have not yet gone to trial and, therefore, are presumed innocent or they are people who have been sentenced to less than a year in jail," she said.

"It is cruel and unnecessary to expose people who are presumed innocent and people serving short sentences to the risk of death in jail. It is also cruel to expose jail staff to the risk of death. Fewer people locked up keeps communities safer and stronger."