Opinion: Michigan can reduce jail populations while preserving public safety

Mike Mueller
Mike Mueller

As a state representative and a former law enforcement officer, I am always looking for opportunities to improve our state’s criminal justice system. I was honored to be asked to join the bipartisan Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration in 2019. 

My experience in law enforcement has shown me our current system isn’t working. My involvement in the task force afforded me the opportunity to closely examine the inner workings of our justice system and seek out new ideas to make the system fair and effective for everyone. 

Data shows Michigan jail populations have nearly tripled in the last 35 years, growing regardless of high or low crime rates. With crime now at the lowest rate in 50 years, hundreds of thousands of people are still admitted to Michigan jails every year, and they’re staying longer than ever before. 

The problem lies in that our jails are full of people with mental health and substance use issues, and it’s not the right place for them. For the most part, these people don’t pose a threat to public safety. We must do all we can to divert them from the criminal justice system while still holding them accountable. 

The Michigan House has made criminal justice reform a priority in recent years, creating innovative solutions like drug and veterans’ treatment courts, smart sentencing updates and civil asset forfeiture reform. But there’s more to be done. 

The task force I was asked to serve on is comprised of 21 members from the executive, judicial and legislative branches, and community leaders and law enforcement officials from across the state. 

Going into these meetings, I kept in mind five main goals that I fundamentally believe in based on my experience as a Livingston County sheriff’s deputy: reducing costs for county jails, protecting civil liberties, keeping our communities safe, putting victim’s rights before offender’s rights and not tying the hands of law enforcement. 

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, second from right, present a report on jail and pretrial incarceration to House Speaker Lee Chatfield, second from left, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich. A task force is recommending an overhaul to bail, arraignment timelines, sentencing and other policies after jail populations have tripled in under 40 years.

Last week, we delivered the task force report to the state Legislature with 18 data-driven recommendations to make Michigan a national leader in criminal justice reform. The proposals will protect victims and the public while safeguarding the rights of all people. The report details who is in Michigan’s jails and what steps need to be taken to reduce those populations without compromising public safety. 

One of the key recommendations within the report would enhance protections and services for victims. Victims need more support during and after the criminal justice process. To address this need, the task force recommends significant new investments to expand domestic violence training for law enforcement and support services for victims including counseling, shelter and transitional services. 

Another key reform would reduce the number of driver’s license suspensions. In 2018, nearly 358,000 driver’s licenses were suspended in Michigan for failing to appear in court and failing to pay fines and fees. Penalizing someone who can’t afford to pay a fine by taking away their means of transportation to get to and from their job isn’t the answer. For cases such as these and for non-moving traffic violations, we must reform the practice of driver’s license suspensions. 

I look forward to continuing to work on these issues and all the other issues brought forth by the task force as the Legislature uses the recommendations to craft new legislation. By working together, listening to experts, and keeping in mind what’s best for our Michigan communities, I am confident we can improve our state’s criminal justice system. 

State Rep. Mike Mueller, R-Linden, serves Michigan's 51st House District.