Through the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing the light of reason beginning to shine when it comes to our state’s approach to incarceration.
What I’m hoping is that it will continue along an enlightened path once this crisis is behind us.
Across Michigan, people have been released from county jails in record numbers to help protect them from contracting the deadly coronavirus. For example, in Chippewa County, where I am the chief public defender, a jail that housed 136 people before the outbreak has seen that number drop to 65, a reduction of nearly 50 percent.
It didn’t happen automatically. My office, which represents indigent clients charged with felony criminal offenses, went to court time and again in recent months to convince judges that the humane and reasonable response, given the dire circumstances, is to either release people already locked up whenever feasible or to seek an alternative to incarceration when handing down sentences.
But here’s the thing: Doing that makes every bit as much sense in ordinary times as well.
As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s bipartisan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration found after nearly a year of intensive study, Michigan’s jails are filled with people who don’t need to be locked up.
After analyzing three years of data from a diverse group of 20 counties, the Task Force found that more than 60 percent of jail admissions were for misdemeanor charges -- crimes like shoplifting, drug possession, failure to appear in court, parole and probation violations and driving without a valid license.
How is anyone made safer by locking up people associated with crimes such as these?
Moreover, those being locked up are disproportionately people of color. According to a final report released in January, the Task Force learned that, in the counties sampled, Black men made up six percent of the resident population but accounted for 29 percent of all jail admissions.
One other aspect of the Task Force’s findings deserves mention here: the overwhelming number of people who sit in jail just waiting for their day in court. These are people who have not been convicted of a crime or plead guilty; they are locked up simply because they are too poor to afford the cash bail required to go free.
Throughout our lives, we’ve heard the phrase, “Innocent until proven guilty.” But when roughly half the jail population across the state is composed of people who have not yet gone to trial, as is the case in Michigan, those words are nothing more than an empty promise.
Findings such as these may have been a revelation for many. But in my office, where we defend people mired in poverty, what the report did was quantify and confirm what we see on a daily basis. Our criminal justice system is anything but just, with the poor and people of color getting arrested more frequently than others, and then spending more time in jail once they are charged.
Locking up people who do not need to be jailed is also a waste of taxpayer money. There are more cost-effective ways of addressing the problem. Certainly, anyone who has had to “shelter in place” during the Covid-19 outbreak now realizes that being placed under house arrest is more than a slap on the wrist. Confinement, even if it is in your home, is certainly a punishment fitting many crimes.
One of my recent clients serves as a good example. He’s a young man charged with selling a small amount of cocaine. Under normal circumstances, he probably would have served a considerable amount of time in jail. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was spared that fate, and ended up spending only a few days locked up. With help from my office, he has been able to reverse course and get his life back on track, rather than have his entire life turned upside down by being locked up – putting him at risk of losing his job, being evicted, and creating havoc for his family. That kind of measured approach, where time is taken to look not just at the crime, but also the person accused of committing it, is exactly the type of tack that should continue to be taken once this pandemic is behind us.
Sentencing people to drug and alcohol treatment programs, and utilizing programs designed to help treat the mental illnesses that lead to the incarceration of large numbers of people, should also become commonplace alternatives to locking people up going forward.
In counties across Michigan, we are being given an eye-opening glimpse of what a more just, humane, and effective criminal justice system can look like. It is vital that we learn from what’s happening during this pandemic, and not go backward once the crisis has passed.