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In 2016, the average number of Michiganders incarcerated on a daily basis reached 16,600—nearly triple the average in 1975. This week, a group tasked with fixing the issue released its list of recommendations.

In less than 40 years, Michigan’s county jail population nearly tripled, putting a strain on law enforcement, public resources, and disproportionately harming already-vulnerable populations, according to a new report from a criminal justice task force. 

The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, charged with reducing the number of inmates in the state’s crowded county jails, made 18 total recommendations on how to do so, including reducing driver’s license suspensions, diverting people with behavioral health needs from the justice system, and reducing arrests for failing to appear in court. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer convened the task force via executive order in April 2019 after the number of people in Michigan’s jails nearly tripled from an average daily population of 5,700 in 1975 to 16,600 in 2016. This growth was not driven by rising crime rates, as Michigan’s have been decreasing since the 1980s and hit a 50-year low in 2016.

Whitmer directed the task force to study the state’s jail system and develop recommendations on how to expand alternatives to jail, safely reduce jail admissions and lengths of stay, and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the state’s justice systems. Stakeholders from the state government, law enforcement, and academia, as well as criminal justice advocates, were among those involved. 

To inform their findings, the group analyzed 10 years of arrest data from more than 600 law enforcement agencies across the state, 10 years of court data from nearly 200 district and circuit courts, and three years of individual-level admission data from a diverse sample of 20 county jails. 

“Now that we have clear data and information about the state of Michigan’s jail and pretrial system, we can begin to take a more thoughtful approach to ensure our policies meet the needs of all who come into contact with that system,” Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, who served as co-chair of the Task Force, said during an announcement this week. “The policy recommendations that we have outlined will provide people with a much healthier chance of success here in Michigan, and I’m ready to work with the Legislature to codify them into law.” 

One of those recommendations is reducing the number of driver’s license suspensions. Driving without a valid license was the third most common reason people went to jail in Michigan in 2018. 

Finding that these suspensions take a toll on families and employers and use up limited public safety resources, the task force recommended limiting such suspensions or revocations to driving violations related to public safety and not for a failure to pay fines or fees. In 2018, more than 350,000 Michiganders lost their driving privileges for failing to appear in court and failing to pay fines and fees. 

Driving without a valid license was the third most common reason people went to jail in Michigan in 2018. 

The task force also addressed mental illness. People living with mental health issues are particularly susceptible to being jailed, the report’s authors found, and they recommended certain individuals who show signs of behavioral needs be redirected into treatment instead of the criminal justice system. Additionally, law enforcement, dispatch, and jail officers should receive behavioral health crisis training, according to the report.

Another point the task force raised addressed the issue of people failing to appear in court, the most common reason for arrest in Michigan. Currently, when individuals fail to show up for hearings, a bench warrant is issued for their arrest, which can be a drain on law enforcement resources.

“To preserve law enforcement resources for more significant threats to public safety, and to reduce jail admissions for failures to appear and failures to pay financial obligations, summonses in lieu of warrants should be the norm rather than the exception,” the report states.

The task force believes that enacting these and other reforms will help reduce the state’s jail population, which could help end the racial inequities in the state’s criminal justice system. Black men in Michigan make up only six percent of the resident population in the counties analyzed in the report, but accounted for 29 percent of all jail admissions.

Beyond the human toll, the report also found that justice system costs are the third largest expenditure at the county level, behind health care and public works. The task force concluded that by reducing jail admissions and increasing alternatives, public resources could be used more efficiently to help victims and provide support and treatment for those with behavioral disorders. 

It’s now up to the Republican-led state legislature to determine which recommendations to enact, if any. 

“The House will review every one of these recommendations and begin work immediately to help protect the people of our state and give them the local and state government they deserve,” said House Speaker Lee Chatfield in an emailed statement.