Earlier this year, Michigan lawmakers were provided a clear, concise roadmap designed to reform a criminal legal system plagued by racism and abuse into one that is just and fair. They took the bold step of following that road map this week when they announced plans to vote for the passage of 17 bills that will reduce the number of people sitting behind bars pretrial and provide common-sense alternatives to arrest and incarceration. These bills begin Michigan’s path on that roadmap, codifying the recommendations made by the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.
In January, after nearly a year of conducting extensive research and holding public hearings across the state, the Task Force delivered a comprehensive report that provides a detailed look at the terrible inequities that currently exist in our criminal legal system, and recommended 18 specific measures that can be taken to begin addressing them.
The Task Force was truly a blue-ribbon panel: a bipartisan group that included the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, the lieutenant governor, law enforcement, prosecutors, local elected officials, judges and victims’ advocates, as well as criminal defense attorneys and formerly incarcerated advocates. That diverse group approved a host of reforms that, if implemented, would take significant strides toward a justice system that treats everyone equally, regardless of race.
We certainly don’t have that now.
Among other things, Task Force members, working with local researchers and The Pew Charitable Trusts, analyzed three years of data from a diverse sample of 20 county jails in Michigan. The results were deplorable yet confirmed what many of us assumed: despite a drop in crime rates, the number of people in Michigan jails has nearly tripled in the last few decades and Black people are disproportionately overrepresented in jail admissions. Black men comprised only six percent of the total county population but 26 percent of all jail admissions. Black residents are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Additionally, while overall trends indicated arrests for all men and white women fell over the last few years, arrest for Black women have been on the rise.
In two out of three cases, it should be noted, people are jailed for minor misdemeanor offenses such as driving on a suspended license. This charge accounted for 12 percent of arrests of Black men and 15 percent of arrests of Black women.
Behind those statistics are personal stories that provide wrenching insight to the hardships our broken system inflicts on poor people and people of color. People such as Detroit resident Kamal Lukata Anderson.
Appearing before the Task Force when it convened at Wayne State University’s School of Law, Mr. Anderson disclosed the downward spiral that began at age 19 when he was pulled over in the city of Eastpoint for having a loud muffler. When a check revealed an outstanding warrant for a previous traffic violation, he was arrested and had his car towed to an impound lot. Unable to come up with $500 bond, he spent 10 days in jail, losing his job as a result.
One of my colleagues, in a previous blog, described the results Mr. Anderson’s arrest this way:
“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’re Black.
“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,” Mr. Anderson said.
He was eventually able to pull himself out of the hole and break the cycle he was caught up in, in part by filing for bankruptcy. He’s now gainfully employed as a bus driver for the city of Detroit.
As to why he came forward with his story, Mr. Anderson explained, “I don’t want to see anyone else go through what I’ve been through.”
Lawmakers have the opportunity to help make Mr. Anderson’s hope become a reality with the bipartisan bill package that they committed this week to passing into law.
As it stands, nearly half of cases filed in district court in Michigan each year are traffic misdemeanors. A Task Force analysis of the proposed bills notes that, “Many of these offenses, ranging from driving without a license on person, to invalid registration, to driving an overweight truck, do not seriously impact public safety. Yet police officers can still pull someone over, arrest them, and take them to jail on any of these charges. The use of criminal penalties for minor traffic violations clogs Michigan’s criminal court system and can land people in jail who are just trying to get to work or take their kids to school.”
The package of bills, if passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, would reclassify as civil infractions many traffic misdemeanors that are unrelated to public safety, increase the use of arrest alternatives at the front end of the system, prioritize alternatives to jail when sentencing people for low-level offenses, and reduce jail admissions for people on probation and parole.
“In other words, they would be treated with a traffic ticket, similar to one for speeding or failing to use a turn signal – an officer could pull someone over, write them a ticket, and let them go with a promise to pay,” according to the Task Force bill analysis. “The person would then pay the ticket online or by mail or request a waiver for inability to pay. Unless requested, no court hearing would be needed, and the person would never be at risk of going to jail. This change could allow criminal courts to preserve their resources for more serious offenses while still holding people accountable for breaking the law.”
These bills are one piece of a broader overall effort to reduce mass incarceration and address racial bias in Michigan’s criminal legal system, as identified by the Task Force. And passing this package would be an important first step in helping keep people – especially poor people and Black people – from the kind of years-long nightmare Mr. Anderson had to endure.