outside the wayne county jail on a sunny day
Wayne County’s Division 1 jail on Clinton Street houses male and female pretrial and sentenced inmates. The sheriff’s office says jail bookings have dropped by more than half since 2020 and the pandemic is only part of the reason why. (Wayne County Sheriff's Office photo)

Jails across the nation have seen significant population decreases since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but the plunge is even more dramatic for Michigan’s largest county jail.

Bookings for Wayne County’s jail system dropped by more than half in 2020 and have continued to go down since, according to the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office. Comparatively, jail bookings nationwide decreased by 15.5% in 2020, and again by 20.7% in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

The marked drop for Wayne County is being attributed in large part to efforts by the sheriff’s department and courts to explore alternatives, like house arrest, GPS tethers and treatment facilities, specifically at the pretrial stage, when people are arrested and awaiting arraignment, trial or sentencing, and for those at increased risk for coronavirus.

“The pandemic has—as it has in other sectors—caused people to look at those practices,” 36th District Court Chief Judge William McConico told BridgeDetroit. “You never want to have a pandemic or a crisis, but it can spur innovation in certain ways, and I think that we’re going to have a better system for pretrial incarceration post-pandemic.”

This graph displays the total number of detainees booked into the Wayne County Jail from calendar year 2015 until the present. (Wayne County Sherriff’s Office)

Wayne County’s jails receive inmates from all local agencies in the county, including Detroit, the sheriff’s office, Third Circuit Court and others.

Robert Dunlap, chief of jails and court operations for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, said a lot of police departments were not making as many arrests over the last several years as they were prior to the pandemic. But that accounted for only part of the dip, he said.

The county’s push for jail alternatives, he said, along with restructuring of the cash bail system at 36th District Court motivated by a federal class action lawsuit and a broader look at inmate data, has separated Wayne County from national trends.

outside 36th District Court
The 36th District Court has reconfigured its bail process following a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of seven Black Detroiters who argued the court was discriminating against low-income people who could not post bail. The suit was settled last July and the court no longer detains people for being unable to pay bail. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

“Many individuals who wind up sitting in jails have needs for treatment, and those needs for treatment do not stop while they’re being held inside the jail,” said Lois Pullano, executive director and co-founder of Citizens for Prison Reform, a grassroots initiative to support families of incarcerated people across Michigan.

Moving as many people as possible to alternatives outside the jail where mental health and substance use disorders can be addressed is “a more humane way to treat individuals,” Pullano added, and it is more cost effective for taxpayers than relying solely on jails.

“We clearly believe offering treatment within communities is what needs to occur here in the state of Michigan,” Pullano said.

To further drill down on needs, the sheriff’s office launched a public online dashboard late last year. It provides a rare, real-time breakdown of demographics and bookings in the jail, as the vast majority of facilities across the nation offer no current data to the public.

Dunlap told BridgeDetroit that the dashboard helps to shed light on mental health issues in the jail, a critical need for police agencies like Detroit that are struggling to cope with a surge in mental health-related crisis calls.

The sheriff’s office partners with Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network (DWIHN) to offer mental health services for people in Wayne County Jail.

The jail’s dashboard shows how many inmates are using mental health services. Currently, nearly a quarter of the overall jail population is classified as receiving mental health support.

DWIHN, previously a division under Wayne County, now works as an independent authority and provides most of the funding for mental health services in the county’s jail, said Andrea Smith, director of innovation and community engagement at DWIHN.

The agency launched a Navigator program in 2018, which works to move people from the jail to mental health and substance use disorder treatment. The agency interviews candidates within hours of when they are booked in the jail to see if they’re a good fit for treatment, Smith said. Those inmates are then assigned a navigator to support them through the court process and with finding a job and staying employed through treatment.

For individuals dealing with severe mental illnesses and who cannot be transferred out of the jail to treatment, the county has a dedicated floor for mental health treatment where inmates receive medication while in Wayne County Jail facilities, Smith said.

But the work doesn’t stop at the jail door; “We try to focus on discharge planning,” Smith said. 

DWIHN gets a daily list of people with known mental illnesses who are being released, so the agency can help connect them to services right away. Smith said she’s working to get discharge lists in advance to better plan for post-incarceration support.

“We’ve heightened the awareness for the courts about…the number of people in jail who were here on low-level charges with mental illness (or) substance abuse issues, who could be better served in the community,” Dunlap said.

Prior to the pandemic, the county’s jail population averaged around 1,800-2,000 people a day, Dunlap said. Moving forward, he expects the number to settle around 1,600. As of Monday, there were 1,451 people in the jail and 1,290 people on tether, according to the dashboard.

Dunlap also attributes the jail’s population size to financial stability.

“I’m a firm believer that the jail population also goes as the economy goes,” said Dunlap, adding that he sees employment as part of criminal justice and social justice reform. “I, for one, believe that there are some people in this jail that wouldn’t be here if they had a well-paying job, or a job paying them a sustainable wage.

“We’re looking at it in a very holistic way and we think that’s going to make sure we can change people reoffending, but also have a fair system, a fair process, while they’re going through the system,” he added.

Restructuring bail

Additionally, the 36th District Court reconfigured its bail process, making it less punitive, after a federal lawsuit. 

In April 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, national ACLU and the law firm Covington & Burling filed the suit against the court on behalf of seven Black Detroit residents arguing it was discriminating against low-income people because they could not post bail. 

The lawsuit noted poor defendants at 36th District Court did not have access to lawyers during arraignment hearings when bail was set and called for an overhaul of the system. The case was settled last July with a two to five-year agreement in place that reformed the bond process. Now, the 36th District Court does not detain people for being unable to pay bail. 

“Your socioeconomic status should not dictate those who are incarcerated,” McConico said. “It should be the specific nature of your offense…(and) whether they have a flight risk.” 

William McConico headshot
William McConico, chief judge of 36th District Court, said the pandemic has prompted the county’s court and jail systems to take a look at practices and come up with more alternatives to pretrial incarceration. (36th District Court photo)

Under the agreement, the court assumes anyone making below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines—or $60,000 for a four-person family— cannot pay cash bail, and ensures those arraigned will have access to a court-appointed lawyer. 

Ann Mullen, communications director for ACLU of Michigan told BridgeDetroit in a statement that thousands of people “will no longer languish behind bars” simply because “they are too poor to pay for their freedom.” 

“We are confident that the agreement will continue to result in a fair and just process for all involved,” she said.

Today, if an individual has a felony arraignment and doesn’t post bail, they go before a judge and attorneys argue whether there should be a bond adjustment, jail alternative or if there is a need for detainment, McConico said. These are called redetermination hearings and will be a permanent change to 36th District Court procedures, he said. 

McConico said he believes that alternatives to pretrial incarceration have “not led to an increase in crime.”

“It has not led to people being unsafe, but it has brought some equity where being poor is not the reason why you’re in jail,” he said. 

What’s next? 

Dunlap said a second phase of the jail dashboard will provide a real-time view of where inmates are, from booking to sentencing, and how long an inmate has been in the jail.

“We’re open to Wayne County as a whole feeding into that,” Smith said, with local departments throughout the county contributing data to the dashboard rather than Wayne County Jail alone.

Dunlap said the sheriff’s office is working to secure grant funding to expand the dashboard and on the logistics of creating an interface with separate logins for personnel. The first phase of the dashboard was funded through grants from the Hudson-Webber Foundation and DWIHN. 

Some people, like judges and doctors, will have unique access to information on an individual level through the dashboard, which will not be visible to the public for privacy reasons, Dunlap said.

“This is a windshield view of all that’s going on in the jail in front of you as it relates to inmates, as opposed to a rearview mirror view,” Dunlap said. 

The county also continues to play catch up on cases because of the pandemic. McConico said the district court has returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the Wayne County Circuit Court is facing a bottleneck of cases. McConico said there is a backlog of jury trials due to prior social distancing regulations, and fewer people are taking pleas. 

According to the dashboard, pre-trial bookings result in the longest average length of stay at 305 days for the jail system. The average length of stay for Wayne County Jail inmates is 270 days.

Moving forward, Dunlap anticipates a smaller jail population due to the alternative measures. At the district court, McConico said redetermination hearings and jail alternatives are here to stay.

The 36th District Court, McConico said, will continue to leverage specialty courts and services, like anger management programs, drug courts and more. He anticipates changes in the process of pretrial incarceration throughout the state.

“(Robert) Kennedy spoke about bail reform in the early 1960s, and we’re still trying to make that happen,” McConico said.

Also, recommendations from Wayne County’s work with the dashboard have been made to the state, Smith said.

“If we could get other entities to just see the value in data…and recognize that fact that it’s OK if we see certain things, such as disparities in bookings,” Smith said. “It just helps you do better.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *