Task force wants proposed jail reform recommendations to become law

Published: Jun. 9, 2020 at 6:04 PM EDT
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(6/9/2020) - A state task force has been working hard behind the scene for about a year now to help revamp the state's justice system.

The bipartisan group has been analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of Michigan's jail and pretrial incarceration.

They've come up with more than a dozen recommendations on what they'd like to see changed.

The big questions here that resulted in the creation of the Governor's task force -- Who is going to jail? How long are they staying there? Is being jailed effective?

“A very large percentage of the amount of people who are in jails right now -- and jails are different than prisons -- are there for minor charges,” Josh Hoe explained. “And, we believe that for people who haven't put anyone else at risk, that incarceration is probably the worst possible response.”

Hoe is a policy analyst with Safe & Just Michigan. The nonprofit organization has played a vital role in the task force.

Hoe said members have attended every meeting and testified in front of the group of police, community members, judges, lawmakers, commissioners and prosecutors from across Michigan.

They're working now to inform the community of the task force's 18 recommendations, as they move towards the legislature in an effort to permanently change the law.

Hoe said the life-changing consequences that someone receives for a few days or months in jail on a misdemeanor don't line up with the nonviolent offense they committed that didn't put anyone else at risk.

He explained the goal of these recommendations is not just to more efficiently use taxpayer dollars, but also to allow people to be more productive members of their communities.

“The interesting thing about this was that these were solutions that were put together that we all can agree on. No matter where, what end of the political spectrum you're on, no matter who you represent, no matter what your ideological background is,” Hoe said. “We all got together and we said here are things we can all agree on that will really move Michigan forward in becoming a leader on criminal justice nationwide.”

“As a system, if you don't look at that model and say okay, clearly we could do better, and not accept, well we're doing pretty good let's just keep it this way, then we're on the right track,” Genesee County Sheriff Swanson said.

Last fall, the Governor's task force took a tour of the Genesee County Jail.

Sheriff Swanson was undersheriff at the time and had a seat at the table on what needs to change when it comes to jailing people.

He said an inmate once stayed in the jail for 7-and-a-half years.

“We're here to do care, custody, control of inmates; but, we operate solely at court order. That's it. I can't go and say hey, this person goes, unless I have a court order,” he explained.

Which is why the Sheriff is in favor of streamlining an inmate's eventual trial, ending what he considers a 'logjam' once the case gets to circuit court.

That's one of the task force's 18 recommendations on reforming the state's jail system.

“The system can use alternative sentencing whether it's tether, whether it's work release, whether it's work detail, whether it's probation, whatever it is,” Sheriff Swanson explained.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, there are only 436 inmates at the County Jail, but 418 of them have yet to be sentenced.

“You could come in here for drunk driving and sit with somebody who's in there for double murder. And you're sitting right next to him. There's a risk factor in that,” Sheriff Swanson said. “And so, when we can reduce the amount of low risk misdemeanors coming in and have space for the violent offenders, everybody wins.”

On average, Sheriff Swanson added it costs taxpayers $32 a day per inmate.

Before COVID-19 restrictions were in place, their jail was constantly overcrowded, housing more than 600 people a day. That's more than $19,000 spent each day, taxpayer money. He said if these recommendations become law across the state, that's a lot of taxpayer money saved.