What happens when you bring a task force together including Democrats, Republicans, legislators, victims-rights advocates, county commissioners, law enforcement officers, and formerly incarcerated people?

A list of 18 recommendations designed to reduce the jail population across the entire state.

According to the original executive order the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration was created to:

“…act in an advisory capacity with the goal of developing ambitious, innovative, and thorough recommendations for changes in state law, policy, and appropriations to expand alternatives to jail, safely reduce jail admissions and length of stay, and improve the effectiveness of Michigan’s justice systems.”

On Jan. 14, 2020, the task force took its first step toward those stated goals by releasing their report and final recommendations. Included in the report were 18 recommendations separated into three categories: arrest policies, pretrial detention policies, and sentencing and probation policies.

As the result of groundbreaking research done by the Pew Charitable Trusts, in coordination with the work of the task force, we learned that Michigan’s crime rates have been declining while arrest rates continue to rise, and we arrest and jail far too many Michiganders for low-level crimes.

To address this problem the task force suggested:

  • Reclassifying most traffic offenses and some other minor misdemeanors as civil infractions rather than crimes.
  • Expanding officer discretion to use appearance tickets (i.e. an order to appear in court on a specified date) as an alternative to arrest and jail.

We also learned that a large number of Michiganders are arrested and jailed because they have unpaid civil fines and fees.

The task force suggests law enforcement should:

  • Reduce the use of arrest warrants to enforce court appearance and payments and establish a statewide initiative to resolve new warrants and recall very old ones.

One of the problems with pretrial detention involves police as the first responders during mental health crises. Far too often, police are asked to deal with complicated situations but without the necessary levels of training or the appropriate deflection and diversion alternatives.

The task force recommends that the state:

  • Provide crisis response training for law enforcement and incentive programs and partnerships between law enforcement and treatment providers to divert people with behavioral health needs from the justice system pre- and post-arrest.

Throughout the state, many people are detained simply because they cannot afford to pay bail, and people that are detained pretrial often end up spending an excessive period of time in jail.

The task force suggests courts:

  • Release people jailed on certain charges pre-arraignment and guarantee appearance before a judicial officer within 24-48 hours for anyone still detained.
  • Strengthen the presumption of release on personal recognizance (i.e. without conditions) and set higher thresholds for imposing non-financial and financial conditions (i.e. bail) of release.
  • Provide a detention hearing for all defendants that are still detained 48 hours after an arraignment.
  • Require defendants to be tried within 18 months of arrest and preserve speedy trial rights unless waived by the defendant

Pew’s research uncovered that one of the largest drivers of incarceration in Michigan is arrests for people driving with suspended drivers licenses for unpaid fines and fees. So, as one of the ways of addressing sentencing and probation.

The task force recommends:

  • We should stop suspending and revoking licenses for reasons other than unsafe driving (e.g. unpaid fines and fees, failure to appear in court).

The task force also recommends addressing the problem of arresting too many people for non-serious misdemeanors and low-level felonies by:’

  • Making sentences other than jail the default for non-serious misdemeanors and for felonies marked for intermediate sanctions under the sentencing guidelines (“straddle cells”).

One problem after sentencing has been served is that probation supervision often runs well past the time a person has demonstrated they are no longer a risk to public safety, and many people are jailed for non-criminal “technical” violations of probation conditions (e.g. curfew violation).

The task force recommends:

  • Shortening maximum probation terms for most felonies, establishing new caps on jail time for technical violations, and allowing people on probation to earn an early discharge.

Being arrested and/or incarcerated can be incredibly costly. The fines, fees and debt can often create cycles or even generations of indebtedness and incarceration.

The task force recommends:

  • Changing fine amounts to civil infractions.
  • Requiring criminal courts to determine the ability to pay fines and fees at sentencing and modify unaffordable obligations. Repeal the law authorizing sheriffs to bill people for their own incarceration (“pay to stay”).

There were a few other important issues that the task force was compelled to address. First, there have been problems with ensuring that victims get access to services resources and to ensure that protective orders are successful.

The task force recommends:

  • Investing significant resources in victim services and strengthening protection order practices.

Finally, a lot of the reason why this task force became necessary was that Michigan has not been able to get uniform statewide data about incarceration and from our courts all over the state.

The task force recommends:

  • Standardizing criminal justice data collection and reporting across the state.

You can find much more information about the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration from their website or read the report and recommendations in their entirety at this link.

At Safe & Just Michigan we are encouraged to see such substantial ideas introduced to improve Michigan’s county jail system. The county jail system in Michigan costs our taxpayers nearly half a billion dollars annually while many of the leading causes of jail stays could be managed safely through alternative means with much lower public and social costs. As task force member and former Speaker of the Michigan House Craig DeRoche mentioned in an op-ed in the Detroit News:

“Incarceration is the most expensive and least effective tool in any government’s arsenal.”

The recommendations of the task force are smart on crime. They identify numerous ways in which Michigan’s jail system overuses incarceration and recommend reforms that will lead to better outcomes at less cost. We strongly encourage the Michigan Legislature to prioritize passing legislation based on these research-backed, thoughtful recommendations into policy.