Bipartisan Support for Michigan's Jail Reform is a Promising Start

In the past 40 years, individuals who have been most affected by jail admissions are victims of “The War on Drugs” campaign. The day after she was elected, Gov. Whitmer said she intends to use her clemency powers to free the thousands of people who are currently serving sentences for marijuana offenses. Additionally, she supported removing prior marijuana-related convictions.

On Wednesday, April 17th, Gov. Whitmer signed Executive Order 2019-10 to create the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration. This task force kickstarts a bipartisan review of Michigan’s jail and court data in hopes to reduce jail admissions and length of stays, expand jail alternatives. Additionally, it aims to improve the front end of Michigan’s justice system.

But, just how ineffective is Michigan’s current criminal justice system? How does it compare to other states and the United States in general?

State Statistics

Michigan jail populations have nearly tripled in the last 35 years, regardless of whether a crime was increasing or decreasing. While crime now at a 50-year low, hundreds of thousands are still admitted to Michigan jails every year, and people stay in jail longer on average than before.

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Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Half of the people in Michigan’s local jails are awaiting trial and presumed innocent. However, many remain in jail. This is not necessarily because they are a flight risk or threat to public safety, but because they are too poor to afford bail.

Additionally, Michigan is one of the 10 states where 17-year offenders are tried and convicted as adults. This fact on its own lends to the state’s overcrowding of jails.

County Funding Leads to Increased Jail Population

Jails are funded at the county level. Subsequently, increasing jail populations are stretching county resources and leaving less for investment in treatment services, crime prevention, victim services, economic development and more. Therefore, state legislation influence decisions about who are booked into local jails, how long they stay, and why.

According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, here are the 10 most expensive places in Michigan to spend the night in jail:

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Source: Mackinac Center for Public Policy

State(s) Similar Legislation

As of late, more states are introducing initiatives on their own legislative floors concerning prison reform. In February, South Carolina lawmakers proposed cutting the number of inmates in the state’s prisons. If enacted into law, the bipartisan bill calls for automatic parole of nonviolent inmates. Additionally, it removes minimum sentences for certain crimes, which includes drug-trafficking convictions.

However, in November 2018, Ohio voters rejected Issue 1 proposal, which was set to convert felony drug possession and drug use crimes to misdemeanors with no jail time. Despite this, state lawmakers said they were ready to move forward concerning criminal justice reform.

With its geography, prison overcrowding and opiate crisis mirroring Michigan, it will be interesting to see what Ohio lawmakers propose for further prison reform.

National Statistics

The statistics surrounding the U.S. prison population are startling. However, Michigan’s current incarceration rates are downright disturbing. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 641 people in Michigan per population of 100,000 are incarcerated today. That’s only 47 people less than the United States’ incarceration rate.

This proves how necessary Gov. Whitmer’s task force initiative is. If implemented properly, the task force can reduce jail populations in Michigan and thus, lessen the strain on county budgets, law enforcement, and non-violent drug offenders’ futures.

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Federal Legislation

As evident above, criminal justice issues are obviously not just central to Michigan. While Gov. Whitmer’s proposed task force focuses on jail reform, prison reform includes a complex set of issues that are in desperate need of attention across the United States.

Back in December, U.S. Congress passed the First Step Act. Signed by President Trump on Dec. 21, 2018, the law retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. One of the biggest reforms within the bill gives federal judges the discretion to sentence more people with mandatory minimum sentences. This exception now can only be used on nonviolent drug offenders with no prior criminal background.

However, the First Step Act simply attempts to enforce what’s already written into law or policy. While it’s bipartisan support shows movement in the right direction, there is still a lot more work to do regarding prison reform. Hopefully, Gov. Whitmer’s task force can set a precedent for other states to follow suit.

The Future of Michigan’s Jail Reform

The Law Offices of Barton Morris Senior Associate Attorney Charlotte Steffen supports Gov. Whitmer’s jail reform task force initiative.

“Our current system is broken and the status quo is not working. Half the people in local jails haven’t even had their day in court yet. Incarcerating those we presume innocent is an inhumane and flagrant waste of taxpayer money. This Task Force will seek to find new approaches and real solutions to public safety.”

With data-driven policy reform, Michigan lawmakers have the ability to ease the burden on county budgets and increase the public safety return for taxpayers. Most importantly, they have the duty to serve every single one of their constituents, including the ones in jail. Let us at the Law Offices of Barton Morris help you avoid unnecessary jail time for your OWI and substance charges.

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