Wayne County is in the middle of an effort to reduce its jail population, and it’s just received some early data to help guide that effort.
The county is teaming up with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice to figure out who goes to jail, and who might not need to be there.
The county received some preliminary data from the Vera Institute this week.
Some big takeaways: the single biggest segment of the county’s jail population is there for traffic violations. And it houses an unusually high number of women charged with violent crimes. Up to 40% of them also suffer from mental illness.
Judge Timothy Kenny is the chief judge of Wayne County Circuit Court. He says the information about the number of people locked up for traffic crimes is troubling, and linked to issues of poverty and car insurance affordability in Detroit.
“They can’t afford to pay the speeding ticket, and so they don’t show up to court and they don’t pay the ticket, and so there’s a bench warrant for their arrest,” Kenny said. “That’s something that we really need to take a look at, and see what we can do maybe in terms of setting up payment plans for people on these traffic matters, just to keep them out of jail.”
Kenny says courts need to be mindful of incarcerating pre-trial defendants—people who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime—without compromising public safety. Making sure people show up for court dates is another challenge, but Kenny says it’s worth considering a tactic that’s proven effective in other jurisdictions.
“Courts may need to go more to the notion of sending out text and voicemail reminders, like you do when you have a dental appointment, or a doctor appointment,” he said.
Another issue facing all county jails is the number of people suffering from mental illness who end up there, says Robert Dunlap, chief of jails for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office.
“We are probably the largest inpatient mental health facility in the state of Michigan,” said Dunlap, citing data showing that up to 80% of people booked on misdemeanor charges alone have some connection to county mental health services.
“The jail should be for people that are dangerous to the community and the people, not for people that we are mad at, or people who are ill.”
Dunlap says Wayne County has already reduced its jail population significantly in the past two years, from averaging more than 2,200 inmates monthly to around 1,620 today. The county plans to open a new, 2,280-bed jail in 2022.
Kenny says the county expects to receive the Vera Institute’s final report in January, and will put together a final plan to reduce incarceration from there. There are parallel, ongoing efforts at the state level right now.
“I anticipate that certainly 2020 is going to be an opportunity for change in terms of how we do the entire issue of pre-trial release,” Kenny said.