Detroit resident Kamal Lukata Anderson has been looking for an opportunity to tell his story. Last Friday, he found the ideal audience: a task force Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed to find ways to reduce Michigan’s booming jail population.
"We need to take meaningful steps to reform our criminal justice system, because the number of people in local jails has tripled over the last 35 years, but crime rates in Michigan are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years,” said Gov. Whitmer when launching the effort in April. “This task force is an opportunity to see how we can make the system better for the people of our state and make Michigan an example for the country on jail and pretrial reform."
To that end, the task force has recently been holding meetings across the state, listening to researchers report their findings and hearing testimony from a wide variety of people, ranging from criminal justice experts and representatives of the bail bond industry to mental health workers and victims of crime.
Also speaking out are formerly incarcerated individuals such as Mr. Anderson, who, at 45, has been in and out of jail much of his life.
Not for robbing people, or dealing drugs, or committing fraud. As he told the task force when it convened at Wayne State University’s law school, he has zero felonies on his record. Yet, over the years, he’s been sent to jail again and again, sometimes spending months at a time behind bars and suffering the consequences even short stints behind bars can lead to – lost jobs, family problems, and a cascade of crippling financial setbacks.
While still a teenager, he found himself caught in a downward spiral of driving offences that took him two decades to pull out of. According to him, it started off this way:
“At age 19, while in Eastpointe heading to work, I was trailed by police officers for several blocks and then pulled over for a loud muffler. Upon checking my license, a traffic warrant came up from Grosse Pointe. I was arrested and my car was towed. I had to come up with $500 bond. I didn’t have it, so I was sent to Oakland County Jail for 10 days. I lost my job and my car in the process.”
To pay his fines and court costs, and to continue to survive, he needed to keep working. With few job opportunities in the city, that meant commuting to factory jobs in the suburbs. But how do you accomplish that if you live in a city that has the nation’s highest auto insurance rates, and the regional mass transit system is the nation’s worst?
In the case of Mr. Anderson, and for thousands of others facing the same devastating dilemma, the answer is that you take your risks by continuing to drive, whether or not you have a valid license, insurance or registration.
And then you get caught again, especially if you are an African American.
At a September meeting of the task force in Grand Rapids, researchers for The Pew Charitable Trusts reported that, based on a representative sampling of jail data from 20 counties between 2016 and 2018, “black men comprised only 6 percent of the total county population but 26 percent of all jail admissions.”
Researchers also found that nearly two-thirds of jail admissions in the counties they looked at were for misdemeanor charges.
The charges might be relatively minor, but the cost to individuals caught up in the system can be devastating.
This is how Mr. Anderson describes it:
“This system of creating criminals out of citizens who commit traffic violations and for not being able to afford predatory insurance and other trivial components to keep a vehicle registered on the road is nothing short of a racket, with a number of predatory entities involved in this shameless practice. Judges, police officers, tow truck companies, court clerk's offices, county jails, phone companies, etc.
“I have suffered job losses, marital problems, economic distress dealing with this situation, my license was suspended nearly 15 years along with some exorbitant driver responsibility fees that compounded my issues even worse.”
In all, Mr. Anderson spent time in five different county jails for driving-related offences over a span of two decades. The longest stint was for 90 days. And each stay behind bars set him back even further.
Growing up on Detroit’s east side, he saw plenty of people who earned a living dealing drugs.
“But I didn’t want to pursue that kind of life,” says Mr. Anderson. “All I wanted to do was support myself and my wife, and keep a roof over us.”
Then there’d be another driving-related arrest, and a $250 or $500 or $1,000 bond he couldn’t afford. Which meant more time in jail, and more bills to pay off with no paychecks coming in.
For Mr. Anderson, it took filing for bankruptcy to help get his life back on track. Able to wipe out much of his debt, he cleared up his problems with the courts and eventually was able to get his driver’s license reinstated. Even better, he was able to obtain a commercial driver’s license, which led to a job as a bus driver for the city of Detroit.
Given that turn of events, the easiest thing for Mr. Anderson would have been to keep his story to himself and get on with his life. But when he read about the task force meeting in Detroit, he felt compelled to show up and speak out.
“I don’t want to see anyone else go through what I’ve been through,” he said. “If putting my story out there helps accomplish that, then I’m happy to do it.”
The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration will hold its next meeting in Lansing on Tuesday, Nov. 19. Information can be found at the Supreme Court’s website. A final report and recommendations are scheduled to be released in January.