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Editorial: Ease budget crisis with jail, prison reform

The Detroit News

Michigan could address both its severe budget shortfall and the need to reduce its prison and jail populations by moving swiftly to pass a set of policy recommendations that offer alternatives to incarceration.

The Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently approved a $2.2 billion patch on the current state budget, using a combination of spending cuts and federal relief funds. 

But it faces an additional General Fund shortfall of more than $2 billion for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. 

More:Whitmer, GOP leaders agree on patch to 2020 budget amid virus fallout

Earlier this year, the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration offered an outline of reforms that would greatly reduce the cost of the corrections system. If adopted, they would particularly help local communities, which face more than $100 million in cuts next year, by sharply cutting the cost of operating jails.

Earlier this year, the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration offered an outline of reforms that would greatly reduce the cost of the corrections system.

Along with saving taxpayers money, the reforms fundamentally are a better approach to criminal justice. 

Local governments spend roughly a half-billion dollars a year running lock-ups. As the  task force noted in its report, many of those sitting in while jail are awaiting trial and can't afford bail, or have been convicted of minor offenses and can't pay the fines and fees they've been assessed. The overwhelming majority present no danger to their communities.

The package of reforms provides an easier route for those defendants to be bonded out of jail while their cases move forward.

It also diverts many suspects from jail in the first place. As the report notes, one-third to one-half of those arrested and jailed by local officials are suffering from mental illness or chronic drug problems.

Jail is not the right place for them. The current debate over policing practices are addressed by the task force in that they would beef up mental health and drug treatment at the local level, sparing police officers from situations they aren't fully trained to handle.

The reforms would have the added benefit of helping to address the COVID-19 public health crisis. 

The Task Force is already being used as a guide to reduce arrests and warrants, and increase pretrial releases to allow jails to comply with social distancing needs.

We have no idea how long COVID-19 will be with us, or for how long there will be ongoing public health reasons to keep jail populations low.  The Task Force recommendations offer a longer-term solution than executive orders for keeping the number of people in jails low enough to stop the spread of the virus, and doing so in a way that protects the public.

Much of the package boils down to commons sense, including not arresting and jailing motorists for having an expired driver's license, and looking for alternatives to incarceration at sentencing. Included reforms also would cap jail times for technical violations of probation.

The goal is a worthy one: Lock up only those who present a danger, and find other ways of dealing with everyone else.

Even without a budget crisis, this package should be embraced. And indeed it enjoys bipartisan support, including from the Republican legislative leadership.     

Its passage should be a major piece of the effort to address the budget crisis. 

And it should be passed in its entirety. The reforms are not presented as a menu of choices, but rather as a wholesale restructuring of Michigan's criminal justice system.