Amanda Alexander, founding executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Justice Center.

Amanda Alexander put a gripping exclamation point on months of study and discussion when she described a recent visit to Genesee County’s jail.

“As we stood in the lobby, the captain and undersheriff told us statistics about who is locked up there on any given day. That day, 95 percent of people there were unsentenced,” Dr. Alexander, appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, reported during a recent task force public hearing in Lansing.

Administrators told Dr. Alexander, founding executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Justice Center, and other task force members that the jail is overcrowded 305 days of the year on average, and that the overcrowding is caused by people waiting to face a jury.

That point needs to be repeated: The Genesee County jail, as with other jails throughout the state, is filled with people who are supposed to be presumed innocent, but are locked up nonetheless.

But that’s not the worst of it.

The administrators “estimate that at least 40 percent of the pretrial population has been incarcerated for over a year. And the record there—the longest time they’ve ever had someone awaiting trial at that jail—is 7.5 years,” Dr. Alexander reported.

Along with hearing from administrators, task force members also talked with people held in the jail.

“In our roundtable with people incarcerated there, we met a man who has been awaiting trial for four years,” said Dr. Alexander. “He’s a father of four, and he said his 6-year-old son asks him, ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’ and he doesn’t know what to tell him.”

The man explained that he went behind bars when his youngest son was 2, and that he hasn’t seen or touched him in four years.

Dr. Alexander also alluded to the fact that this is not only a justice and humanitarian issue. It is also about spending tax dollars wisely.

After touring the jail and participating in a roundtable discussion with incarcerated individuals, the visiting task force members went across the street to Flint’s City Hall for a community “speak-out” focused on issues of incarceration.

“It was pouring rain, and the lobby on the way into the auditorium was full of buckets that were catching the rain coming down through the roof. I’ll say it was a stark contrast in public spending and priorities,” said Dr. Alexander. “On one side of the street so much money is being poured into locking people up, while on the other side of the street residents came out to have their voices heard in a public gathering space in disrepair.”

Michigan taxpayers in 2017 spent $478 million on county jail and correction costs. In Genesee County, the annual jail budget is $16,732,000.  The cost of keeping a single incarcerated person locked up is $75 per day.

Although it won’t make final recommendations until it meets in January, the task force has identified areas that clearly need to be addressed. In its meeting with incarcerated people, task force members heard from people already locked up how the system can be improved  to benefit everyone. In her report, Dr. Alexander said that these suggestions were made:

  • Give lower bonds or release people if they’re spending long periods of time in jail without a court date.
  • We need more programming for mental health, addiction services, and anger management. There need to be more diversion options for people dealing with addiction. One man said his judge had sentenced him to be in the jail only until a drug-treatment bed opens up. He said he thought he’d be transferred soon, and that things had been moving fairly quickly. We asked him about long he’d been there waiting in the jail for a bed to open up and he said “58 days.”
  • They also said contact between incarcerated people and their attorneys needs to be improved.
  • And people need more support when they leave jail to help them not come back. They said, you “go back into the world with nothing, so you have no other choice than to go right back to what you were doing that got you in jail.”
  • Finally, they talked about the toll that money bail takes on families. One person said, “Money bail makes our families choose between buying food, clothes, and medication or bailing us out.”

The need to overhaul Michigan’s jail system has been evident from the outset of the task force’s efforts. Back in April, when Gov. Whitmer announced the initiative, Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs Association, summed up the situation:

“Michigan jails are filled with people who are not yet sentenced or in need of mental health treatment,” Koops said. “The amount of county spending to keep individuals in jail without getting a public safety benefit is an unproductive use of resources.”

In the months since then, the truth of that statement has been driven home again and again, both in the voluminous research that has been done, and the public testimony that’s been given.

In January, a final set of proposed solutions will be presented. In a sense, that’s when the real work begins.

It is one thing to research and recommend agreed-upon ways to fix a problem. Getting government to fund and implement those solutions, though, could be an entirely different matter.

Members of the public may submit written testimony to the task force ahead of its final meeting on Jan. 9, 2020 by emailing jailstaskforce@courts.mi.gov​.

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