Can Michigan Point the Way to Nationwide Jail Reform?

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Michigan state capitol. Photo by Jennifer Pack via Flickr

Sweeping jail reforms introduced in Michigan this year can serve as a “template” for other states in how to reduce incarcerated populations without endangering public safety, says the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP).

A package of legislative reforms signed into law by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Jan.4 eliminated some of the key drivers that have nearly tripled the state’s jail population since the 1970s, the PSPP said in an analysis released Tuesday.

“Michigan’s historic reforms will not only improve the state’s criminal justice systems and the lives of residents, but also serve as a template for other states where jails are driving increased taxpayer costs,” wrote PSPP Director Jake Horowitz and Terry Schuster, a manager with PSPP.

The reforms, spearheaded by a bipartisan task force comprising state and county leaders, included:

      • Ending driver’s license suspensions for driving without a license and other offenses unrelated to dangerous driving;
      • Decriminalizing misdemeanors;
      • Offering alternatives to jail, such as fines and community services, for all but the most serious misdemeanors; and
      • Reducing probation terms for most felonies to a maximum three years.

The new approach to misdemeanors addresses some of the main reasons why Michigan jails had been among the most overcrowded in the nation.

According to data from 2016 to 2018, more than 60 percent of Michigan jail admissions were for minor offenses that “clog up” the legal system while posing little threat to the public, the analysis said.

Under the new legislation, violations related to operating motor vehicles and noise offenses, among others, are classified as civil infractions and will not involve a criminal court appearance.

Similarly, courts have been instructed to use a summons rather than issue an arrest warrant for first-time failures to appear in court—the number one reason for arrest in Michigan in 2018.

Police now have the discretion to issue tickets for some offenses, including most misdemeanors, that previously were subject to arrest.

The state has also eliminated the use of license suspensions as a punishment for unrelated offenses such as drug possession and nonpayment of fines. That means individuals charged with a minor nondriving offense can still legally use their cars to “get to work, pick up their children from school, and make trips to the grocery store,” Pew said.

Driving without a valid license was also once the third most common reason Michigan residents were sent to jail between 2016 and 2018.

Michigan’s reforms offer a poignant contrast for example to Minnesota, where 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot by a police officer this week. Wright died after he was pulled over for driving without a valid registration, and then ordered to step out of his car  after being identified as allegedly failing to answer a misdemeanor warrant.

Most significantly, the reforms create “an expectation in the law that misdemeanor sentences will allow people to continue to work and otherwise contribute to their families and communities,” the analysis said.

The probation reforms, reducing the maximum term for most felonies to three years, will have a deep impact in a state that had the sixth highest share of people on community supervision, Pew said.

Pew research shows that keeping people on probation longer than needed to deliver public safety benefits carries unnecessary costs,” wrote Horowitz and Schuster.

“The reforms also increase incentives for people on probation to comply with their supervision conditions by establishing an earned discharge policy.”

State legislators are planning another round of reforms in the current legislative session, including an expansion of pretrial release and increased investments in mental health diversion practices.

Michigan’s experience is especially significant as jail populations across the country are beginning to rise again with the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

“State leaders should take stock of how their laws have contributed to such growth,” Pew said.

“They can follow Michigan’s lead by enacting policies that direct police, court and jail resources to public safety threats, and that provide alternatives for people who can safely remain in the community.”

Pew Charitable Trusts and the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute provided technical assistance to the Michigan Task Force.

Read the complete analysis here.

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