LANSING, Mich. – Michigan should reclassify many traffic offenses as civil infractions, release more defendants before trial without requiring them to pay money, consider alternatives to incarceration and take other steps to reduce jail populations that have tripled in under 40 years, a task force said Tuesday.
The 21-member group, which was created by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with support from Republican legislative leaders, delivered its findings and 18 recommendations to lawmakers. Suggestions include giving police more discretion to issue appearance tickets instead of arresting and jailing people, shortening the amount of time people spend in jail between their arrest and arraignment, reducing fines and reducing maximum probation terms for most felonies.
A big takeaway from the panel’s work “has been the wide range of experiences a person could have depending on what county jail system they came into contact with. We believe that these recommendations help really get us to a place where there is consistent fairness in that process rather than just variability,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told The Associated Press in advance of the report’s official release.
Gilchrist co-chaired the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration with Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, who said the study shows how problems in the criminal justice system are interconnected.
“Somebody doesn’t pay a traffic ticket and then their license is suspended. Then the next time they’re pulled over, they now have an offense for which they must go to jail, which of course makes it impossible for them to then go to work to pay the traffic ticket they couldn’t pay in the first instance,” she said in an interview.
The system, McCormack said, is at a “boiling point” — such that task force members representing a diverse mix of groups agreed that “we can do better” by people housed in jails, crime victims and the public.
The task force reviewed 10 years of arrest and court data along with three years of individual-level admission data from a sample of 20 county jails. Though arrests dropped by 22% between 2008 and 2018, the average jail population of 16,600 — split evenly between pretrial and convicted detainees — did not decline proportionally, according to the report. Jail populations have grown faster in rural counties than in urban or suburban areas.
Driving without a valid license was the third most common reason for admissions in a jail and correctional system that cost taxpayers at least $478 million in 2017, not including $418 million that defendants paid. Michigan residents can have their license suspended for non-driving reasons such as failing to appear in court or a drug conviction. Some 358,000 licenses were suspended in 2018 for failure to appear and failure to pay fines and fees.
The task force said Michigan should stop suspending and revoking licenses for actions unrelated to safe driving. Most traffic offenses and some minor misdemeanors should be reclassified as civil rather than criminal infractions, it said.
The panel also studied pretrial release and detention policies, saying bail laws should be revised to align with a growing consensus in federal courts. It recommended establishing a tiered framework, where all defendants would be released on a promise to return to court — without paying bail — unless the judge determined the defendant posed a significant risk of not appearing, absconding or injuring themselves or others.
Twenty of the 21 task force members voted last week to forward the recommendations to the Legislature. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, abstained.
Nessel said while the group “made great strides,” particularly in recognizing that the system often criminalizes poverty and treats jails and prisons as mental health facilities, she has concerns.
“We can never lose sight of the impact that crime has on the victim. And while we must strive for bold reform, those reforms cannot be at the expense of the individuals the system is designed to protect,” she said.
Legislative leaders pledged to seriously consider the recommendations, noting that the Legislature last year agreed on a bipartisan basis to limit law enforcement’s ability to seize assets in drug cases and raised the age at which offenders will be treated as adults.
“We are going to be tackling many issues in 2020. But I think paramount to all of them in importance is reforming our criminal justice system,” said House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican from Levering.