Finley: GOP, Dems join to empty jail cells

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Crime and punishment is not the place you'd expect to find common ground between Republicans and Democrats.

Visitors are given the chance to feel what it was like to be in a cell at Cellblock 7 at the Southern Michigan Prison in Jackson.  The cellblock has been turned-into a museum, and is the scene of tours.

For decades conservatives have built campaigns on a tough law-and-order plank, while Democrats have preached leniency for criminals. 

But Wednesday, GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey stood beside Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to help launch a major new initiative to keep more Michigan citizens out of jail.

Spearheaded by Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration hopes to develop data-driven solutions to avoid locking up defendants before they go to trial. The task force was created by an executive order from Whitmer, and is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

"With this initiative, Michigan can move from the middle of the pack to the nation leader in smart justice," McCormack says.

The chief justice notes that over the past 40 years Michigan's jail population has nearly tripled to 15,000 inmates.

And half of them are awaiting trial. Some may stay behind bars for a year or longer before a jury or judge decides on their guilt.

The cost to taxpayers is $75 a day per inmate, plus the expense of building and maintaining more jail cells. The cost to the incarcerated individuals and their families is immeasurable.

Supported by data and policy experts from Pew, the task force will study who gets sent to jail before trial, why and for how long. The goal is to come up with reforms that allow defendants who present no danger to their communities to remain free until their cases are resolved.

The ACLU of Michigan took a different tack toward the same outcome earlier this month in filing a lawsuit challenging the disparity in Michigan's bail system. The ACLU charges that poor defendants are more likely to wait behind bars for their trials because they can't afford to post bond.

There's a steady movement afoot in Michigan and across the nation to rework the criminal justice system in a way that better serves both society and the inmates. 

The old lock 'em up and throw away the key approach resulted in packed, budget draining prisons that were built with revolving doors.

Little was done to rehabilitate convicts, or to attack the high recidivism rate. Corrections systems were wasting both money and lives.

Now Republicans have joined Democrats in the effort to lock up fewer inmates, and to do a better job of correcting the behavior of those who must go to prison.

If it works — and early signs are promising — corrections will consume fewer government resources and crime rates will decline to boot. And individuals who had before been written off will be put back into productivity. 

Getting this right requires a shift in mindset away from viewing the corrections system as a tool for punishment, and instead employing it as a force for redemption.

Democrats and Republicans may have different reasons for supporting that transformation, but as long as they're coming together to make it happen, taxpayers will be the ultimate winners.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.