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Michigan’s county jail populations have tripled in less than 40 years, costing taxpayers nearly $500 million annually.

Reconsidering Jail: Michigan Task Force Helps Drive New Laws

By Amanda Essex | July 2, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

A Michigan task force whose recommendations became a successful package of jail reforms has sketched out another round of policy changes for 2021. The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, a bipartisan group of criminal justice experts and stakeholders convened in 2019, has focused this session on keeping people with behavioral health needs out of jail, investing in services and supports for crime victims and promoting liberty and public safety in pretrial decision-making.

The task force, created by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order, recognizes the need for “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 efficiency and effectiveness of [the state’s] justice systems.” The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project and the Crime and Justice Institute provided technical assistance to this task force throughout its work.

The task force findings that guided its policy recommendations included the fact that county jail populations have tripled in less than 40 years, costing taxpayers nearly $500 million annually.

In January 2020, the task force presented its final report and recommendations to the Legislature and included recommendations in 11 areas: traffic violations; arrest; behavioral health diversion; the first 24 hours after arrest; pretrial release and detention; speedy trial; alternatives to jail sentences; probation and parole; financial barriers to compliance; victim services; and data collection.

The Legislature passed a package of 20 bills, signed into law in early 2021, that implemented many of these recommendations. Some of the most significant legislative changes include:

  • Eliminating license suspensions that are not related to unsafe driving. Free to Drive, an advocacy coalition, tracks state laws and legislative changes addressing driver’s license suspensions unrelated to driving.
  • Decriminalizing low-level traffic misdemeanors, making them civil infractions. Decriminalizing behavior means imposing fines rather than jail. According to an overview of the legislative package, almost half of cases filed with the court are traffic misdemeanors that “do not seriously impact public safety, but they waste valuable law enforcement time, clog Michigan’s criminal courts, require valuable prosecution resources and can land people in jail who are trying to get to work or take their kids to school.” Learn more about changes such as decriminalization and defelonization that reduce jail and prison admissions in this new criminal justice budgeting brief.
  • Eliminating mandatory minimum jail sentences. The legislative package eliminated 22 of the mandatory minimums that were in place for misdemeanors in the state.
  • Increasing the use of alternatives to arrest. The bills provide increased discretion for law enforcement to use citations rather than arrest to respond to misdemeanors and to limit the use of warrants at the initiation of a case or in response to failure to appear in court, along with other changes. Learn more about state laws allowing citation in lieu of arrest here and watch for NCSL’s forthcoming resources on failure to appear.
  • Prioritizing alternatives to jail sentences. In Michigan, a significant number of people who are incarcerated in jails are serving a sentence for misdemeanor convictions. One bill in the legislative package prioritizes the use of non-jail and non-probation sentences for most misdemeanors and includes a presumption against jail sentences for some low-level felonies.
  • Reducing jail admissions for people on probation and parole. With almost 200,000 people on probation and parole in the state, changes to supervision policies can have a significant impact in Michigan. The legislative package made changes to align “terms, conditions and jail sanctions with research and tailor them to individuals.” These changes included shortening the maximum probation term to three years for most felonies, establishing criteria to allow for earned early discharge from probation, limiting arrest and incarceration for probation violations and requiring that conditions be tailored to individual needs. Learn more about tailoring conditions in this primer.

Amanda Essex is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

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