Finley: Genesee County inmates wait more than four years for trial

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Larry Clemons can tell you exactly when he last looked up and saw the sky above him.

"September 25, 2015," he says.

That's the day the Flint man entered the Genesee County jail after being arrested and charged with murder.

Larry Clemons

He's not been outdoors since. Clemons has spent more than four years in jail as his case crawls through the legal system. And yet he hasn't been convicted of anything. 

"I’ve lost four years of my life already," the 33-year-old father of four says. "I can’t get those four years back even if I’m found not guilty. I’ll literally have to start over.”

Clemons, charged with killing a man and wounding a woman during an armed robbery, has had 11 trials and 32 pre-trial appearances adjourned. His next trial date is set for Jan. 7.

That's not the way justice should work, says Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell, who blames the overcrowding in his jail in part on the slow movement through the courts of many defendants.

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"There is a presumption of innocence in our system," says Pickell. "When you have people in jail for four years who are presumed innocent, that’s a problem."

Genesee County has a capacity of 580 inmates. On the day I visited, it held 617. It was one of 305 days in the past year that the jail has been over capacity.

The average jail stay in Genesee is 170 days. Clemons and three other defendants have been held for more than four years, and seven others have been in for more than three years while awaiting their legal fate. 

"To do that to people is inhumane," says the sheriff. "Moving them through the system more  quickly would help tremendously, and it’s the right thing to do."

Barbara Menears, administrator of the Genesee Circuit Court, says it's not typical for criminal cases to take three to four years to be adjudicated. The extensive delay between arrest and trial for the current long-term inmates, she says, can be blamed on the complexity of the charges against them, a series of pretrial motions and appeals and time consumed analysing evidence.

Inmates spend time in a common area at the Genessee County Jail.

Clemons, for example, had a co-defendant who was charged at the same time, and that slowed the process. Analysing a DNA sample, requested three years after the arrest, added a year of delay. The initial judge retired. Defense made a motion that an expert witness be hired to examine the evidence, which took several more months.   

 "I definitely would say these are unusual cases," Menears says. "The reasons these cases went longer than typical are very real."

Those reasons start with a Flint Police Department that is badly depleted because of the city's chronic budget woes, says Prosecutor David Leyton.

"The city of Flint has 90 to 95 sworn offices, and a very small number of detectives compared to what is actually needed, and many of those are newer and inexperienced," says Leyton, who's held the office for 15 years. "You don't always get the most comprehensive investigations."

Leyton says the initial investigation might deliver evidence of probable cause to issue an arrest warrant, but not enough to build a case that meets the beyond a reasonable doubt standard necessary for conviction.

So he has to rely on the police department to gather further evidence, since his office does not have in-house investigators.

"In the meantime, they're inundated with 10 or 15 more cases," he says.

The wait for evidence is compounded by back-ups at the State Police crime labs, Leyton says, as well as difficulties in rounding up witnesses who often don't want to be found. And defense lawyers, he adds are often unprepared or slow the proceedings with motions and appeals.  

A jail reform commission co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack has made one visit to Genesee County, and is returning this month. Staffers are examining the circuit court dockets to develop a plan for moving cases through more efficiently.

"The U.S. Supreme Court says that after six months, the presumption is that the trial is not speedy," says McCormack, who oversees the local courts in Michigan. "There are all kinds of exceptions in the doctrine, and courts are pretty much all over the map.

"But we've got to be able to do better than 3 years. I’m confident in saying that’s not speedy." 

Mentally ill fuel surge

Genesee is the extreme example of a problem afflicting local lockups statewide. Although criminal convictions are falling in Michigan, the population in county jails is growing. 

From 1960 to 2017, the number of inmates in local jails nearly tripled, and now stands at around 17,000. 

"We're at a 50-year low in terms of crime; it doesn't match up, and we have to figure out why," says Gilchrist.

County jails are not set up for long-term stays. Genesee offers a GED program for those without a high school degree, but it doesn't do skills training. It's also ill equipped to treat inmates with mental health or substance abuse issues. A jail is a place to hold inmates, not rehabilitate them.

"This is an unhealthy environment," says Dr. Dennis Lloyd, the jail physician since 1980. "There's not much chance for physical activity. They only see the sun through the windows. There's lots of schizophrenia, paranoia. Lots of anxiety and depression." 

Inmates are idle much of the time. Clemons passes the day reading, watching television and looking out the window. "And I pray a lot," he says. Twice a week he can get video visits from his family.

Inmates spend time in a common area outside of their cells at the Genessee County Jail, Dec. 5, 2019.

Using research and staff funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the jail reform commission has been studying the county jail population in Michigan and ways to reduce it. The findings will be released Jan. 10, along with policy recommendations.

Gilchrist and McCormack agree with Pickell that along with process delays, a driving factor in the population increase is the use of jails to deal with the state's mentally ill residents. The closing of most state mental hospitals in the 1990s left few options for housing those with mental problems.

Pickell says up to two-thirds of his inmates are under medication for mental health problems, and 28 percent have severe mental illness. Eighty percent have some degree of drug and alcohol addiction.

"The statistics are alarming and saddening," Gilchrist says. "Upwards of three-quarters of people in jail have had mental health challenges or substance abuse disorders and would really benefit from a more direct response to the needs they actually have rather than sitting in jail. Jails don’t have people trained for that."

McCormack adds, "What we hear from law enforcement is that we wouldn't take someone with a broken leg and drop them off at the local jail. But we routinely do that with those with mental illness. We are making sheriffs and police the front line for dealing with the mentally ill."

Gilchrist expects a plan for rebuilding the state's mental health infrastructure to be one outcome of the commission's work.

Inmates leave a common area at the Genessee County Jail.

Streamline the process

Another, he hopes, is assuring that long waits between arrest and trial don't cheat defendants of an adequate defense.

Jon Barritt, 50, of Homer, was until this month the longest serving Genesee inmate, at four-and-a-half years. He is charged with killing his longtime girlfriend, Amy Wienski, whose body was found in a burned out rental car.

Barritt believes his extended stay behind bars worked against him when he finally got a trial at the end of October.

"One of the jurors said if I’ve been here this long I must have done something," says Barritt, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend and is moving to Jackson prison to begin serving 65-to-100 years, with credit for time served.

"Three of the witnesses that would have helped my case are gone. Two died and one disappeared. No witness at the trial could help prove my story. Nobody was left to speak up for me."

McCormack says the jail reform initiative isn't about letting criminals walk free. It's about making sure they get a fair trial and are housed in the right place for them and the taxpayers.

"If they’re guilty, move them into the prison system where we can keep them away from people and get about rehabilitating them," she says. "It’s a better place to address what ails them."

Genessee County Sheriff Robert Pickell

'Jail worse than prison'

Barritt agrees. He's something of an expert on the subject, having served 15 years in prison for bank robbery and two years for damaging a police car earlier in his life.

"The jail is a lot worse than prison," he says. "At least in prison, there's movement. You can go outside. They give you a job. You can go to the library. It's stressful here not knowing your outcome."

And a burden on local budgets. Each inmate costs Genesee County $70 a day, Pickell says. The county spends $18 million a year on the jail. 

"Everybody who is eligible is bonded out," he says. "We've got 130 on tethers. There's no low-hanging fruit left."

Pickell would like to see judges and prosecutors make more plea bargains with defendants. 

"We aren't going to try our way out of this," he says.

Leyton says even the most generous plea bargains are often rejected by defendants. He agrees arranging sentencing deals is one way to speed the process, even though it often meets public resistance.

"The analogy I use is that If snow builds up on roof of your house and it doesn’t melt, the roof will collapse," Leyton says. "That's what will happen to the criminal justice system if prosecutors won’t make plea deals."

Genesee inmate Don Huntley of Flint did the math, calculated the risk and decided to take a deal offered by prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to a series of home robberies in return for a sentence of 6-to-20 years.

Donald Huntley

With credit for the 1,620 days already served, Huntley is betting he'll be free sooner than if he'd taken his chances on a trial.

"I've already got three-quarters of my time in," he says. 

Huntley, who says he was unable to come up with the $5,600 he needed to post bond, says he got tired of waiting for his day in court. "It's crazy over there," he says. "Postpone, postpone, postpone. They hold you in here until you can't take it anymore." 

Pickell says Huntley's experience is common.

"A lot of defendants end up sentenced to time served and never go to the state prison, or go for short periods," he says.

Inside a cell at the Genessee County Jail.

Use cells sparingly

Ultimately, the commission headed by McCormack and Gilchrist wants to bring Michigan to a place where jail cells are reserved for those who present a danger to society. It will be seeking bail reform to make it easier for indigent defendants to be released on personal bonds. 

"We know a lot of people on very low level charges end up in jail and could be safely bonded out," McCormack says. "And an overwhelming number of people are in jail for weeks and months for suspended driver licenses and can’t pay the $150 fine.

"A lot of them don’t even know their licenses are suspended."

Lowering the county jail population will not raise crime rates, the justice says.

"There's a lot of national data on how putting someone in jail who could be treated elsewhere actually makes our communities less safe. It makes them more likely to commit crimes in future."

Huntley, 48, who was tied to a home invasion ring that did 24 break-ins and was also charged as a felon in possession of a firearm, hopes to be among those who never see the inside of the Genesee County Jail again.

"I'm getting too old for this stuff," he says. "I’ve already missed out on my daughter’s life, I don’t want to do that to my grandkids.”