On January 4, 2021, Gov. Whitmer signed an historic package of bills that fundamentally reshapes how Michigan will utilize its county jails. These bills, which passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support in December 2020, are expected to significantly reduce arrests and jail admissions in the state.
Together, the package of 20 bills seeks to expand the use of jail alternatives and reserve jail for people who pose public safety risks. The bills:
- Eliminate license suspensions for reasons unrelated to dangerous driving
- Decriminalize many traffic misdemeanors
- Eliminate mandatory minimum jail sentences
- Expand eligibility for citation in lieu of arrest
- Reduce the issuance of bench warrants and allow warrants to be cleared without arrest
- Establish presumptive non-jail sentencing for misdemeanors and some felonies
- Reduce probation terms and establish limits on jail stays for technical violations of probation
- Raise the eligibility age to 25 for young adult deferred adjudication
“Michigan state and county leaders advanced jail policies with real solutions that will have a lasting impact,” said Len Engel, director of policy and campaigns at the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI). “This legislation is a remarkable accomplishment for Michigan, especially during such a challenging year, and the engineers who put this vehicle on the path to success should be proud. The combination of this jails reform and the Clean Slate legislation that passed earlier in the year cements Michigan as a national leader in bipartisan criminal justice reform.”
Since jails are county-based and county-run institutions, changes have historically taken place at the county level. Michigan’s 2020 jails reform, however, was a statewide project. The comprehensive legislative package was the result of an extensive effort to collect and analyze data from jails throughout the state, concerning both the circumstances that lead to jail incarceration and the length of jail sentences.
All of the bills stemmed from policy recommendations developed by the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, for which CJI and the Pew Charitable Trusts provided technical assistance, including data analysis and policy support.
The task force, launched by state and county leaders in the spring of 2019, found that Michigan’s jail population had nearly tripled in 40 years, even as crime rates fell to the lowest levels in half a century. County jails are high traffic institutions, impacting hundreds of thousands more Michiganders each year than state prisons. Research shows that even short stays in jail can increase future criminal behavior, indicating that while jail may be appropriate for those who pose a significant threat to the public or an individual, policymakers should expand jail alternatives for those who do not.
In analyzing data collected from Michigan’s courts and jails, the task force found that traffic violations accounted for half of all criminal court cases in 2018, and that driving without a valid license was the third-most common reason people went to jail. Furthermore, Black people admitted to jail were twice as likely than white people to have a license violation as their most serious offense at admission. Black adult males also accounted for 29% of jail admissions, even though they make up only 6% of the population in the 20 counties examined.
Though developed prior to the pandemic and nationwide calls for racial justice in 2020, the task force recommendations and resulting policies provide a successful roadmap for policymakers to combat the spread of COVID-19 in local jails and can inform decisions about public safety practices to address racial disparities.
“I’m extraordinarily proud of our collective work over the last two years to understand and improve the criminal justice system,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II. “Before Governor Whitmer and I took office, the system didn’t work for families, communities—especially communities of color—or our state as a whole. That is why we made a conscious effort to make our state a national leader in reform, and the results speak for themselves. Next year, we must continue to work together to find ways to provide second chances through a smarter justice system that positions people for more successful futures.”
Additional recommendations from the task force’s report will be taken up for consideration in the next legislative session, including bills related to pretrial release and detention. Pew and CJI will continue to provide support.