McCormack, Gilchrist steered committee poised to make criminal justice reform

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Amid two years of divided government and a 9-month pandemic, one of the state's largest bipartisan collaborations on criminal justice reform to date brought together Michigan's executive, judicial and legislative branches for real change.

The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration gathered some of the first comprehensive data from Michigan's courts and jails, focused on the issues swelling the state's jail populations and pushed for systemic change in the jails and courts.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist helmed the endeavor as co-chairs. But both are quick to note the task force was made up of more than a dozen bipartisan stakeholders from law enforcement, counties, the Legislature, judges, prosecutors, victims rights advocates, the formerly incarcerated and data analysts.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at the Spirit of Detroit as he is leading the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

"I am continually hopeful that this will stay true, but reforming our criminal legal system has been the No. 1 area of bipartisan consensus since the governor and I took office," said Gilchrist, the state's first Black lieutenant governor and a Detroit resident. "We recognize the urgency of the problem." 

The initiative was rooted in an agreement between Pew Charitable Trusts and the state's three branches of government, the Michigan Sheriffs Association and Michigan Association of Counties. The goal was to study why Michigan's jail population had tripled in the last 30 years even though crime was at a 50-year low. The number of jail inmates grew from a daily average of about 5,700 in 1975 to 16,600 in 2016.

The data collected by Pew formed the most comprehensive snapshot of Michigan's jail system to date, producing data that had been elusive for years because Michigan's 83 counties and 81 county jails and 242 trial courts operate independent of each other. 

"Our jail populations grow as a result of many different actors acting in good faith, but nobody having the ultimate responsibility for where that system ends, except the taxpayers who have to fund the increased costs of funneling so many people through jail," said McCormack of Ann Arbor.

The data gathered by the task force found more than half of those in jail are there prior to trial, while they still entertain a presumption of innocence, and nearly a quarter entering jail had a serious mental illness. The third most common reason individuals were in jail was they didn't have a valid license. 

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice McCormack, inside the atrium on the sixth floor of the Michigan Hall of Justice, in Lansing, November 18, 2020.

"That begged some more obvious questions like: How is a person able to afford to pay a fee they can’t afford to pay if they’re in jail rather than going to work in order to earn money to pay that fee?" Gilchrist said. 

In addition, the task force held six public meetings around the state and more than a dozen other meetings with stakeholders. 

In the public meetings, the human side of the data emerged as people "eager, hungry for reform" spoke to the group, McCormack said. Pleas for changes to the mental health system were frequent.

"The public testimony was really striking and moving," McCormack said. "There are individuals whose faces and stories are with me and will be with me forever, and certainly motivated all of us to make sure that our work gets across the finish line."

After the task force report was issued, the group transitioned to advocacy, Gilchrist said. 

"Merely putting people in jail is insufficient to create public safety," he said. "I think we’ve seen that over the years, and so we need to be creative with our tools.”

The group made 18 recommendations that spurred 14 House bills and several Senate bills in the GOP-led Legislature, joining dozens of others this session separate from the task force that have focused on easing restrictions on expungement, reforming asset forfeiture reform and changing juvenile justice laws.

McCormack said she hoped the proposals would be enacted before the end of the year and is eager for the Legislature to embrace next the recommendations dealing with bail and pretrial incarceration. 

The state also needs to address diversion programs for mental health and substance abuse challenges, but those require funding — a tall order for a state cash-strapped by the pandemic and infrastructure needs.

Still, McCormack and Gilchrist remained determined.

"This was not a task force to study something, put a report together and put it up on the shelf," McCormack said.


Bridget McCormack

Age: 54

Occupation: Chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court

Education: New York University Law School

Family: Four children

Garlin Gilchrist

Age: 38

Occupation: Lieutenant governor of Michigan

Education: University of Michigan

Family: Three children

Why honored: McCormack and Gilchrist led one of the state's most comprehensive efforts to date to study and reform the state's jail system, where the average daily population has tripled in 30 years despite lower crime rates.