GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan is part of a national project by the American Civil Liberties Union called Smart Justice, which has the ambitious goal of cutting incarceration in the state by 50 percent in six years.
On Wednesday, former U.S. Attorney Heather Garretson joined with ACLU field organizer Richard Griffin to explain the program to the Progressive Women’s Alliance at the Grand Rapids YWCA.
“This is personal, not a vendetta, but a personal journey of mine,” Griffin said.
Less than two years ago, Griffin was in the 22nd year of a life sentence. He explained that he started selling drugs on Grand Rapids’ southeast side when he was 11 years old and in 1995, at the age of 16, was part of a drug-related homicide. He was convicted of second-degree and attempted murder.
He joined 64,000 Michigan residents behind bars. Of those, 40,000 are in state prisons and the other 17,000 in local jails. Of those 17,000 people in jails, 8,300 are there awaiting trial.
“In Kent County, we estimate that over $6 million a year are spent detaining people who have not been convicted of a crime,” Garretson, the former U.S. attorney, said.
She said the greatest impact comes after three days when people start losing their jobs and lose contact with family members, Garretson said.
“In Kent County, the average length of stay is nine days having not been convicted of anything,” Garretson said. “People plead guilty to go home. They don’t plead guilty because they’re guilty.”
In Michigan, six times as many black people are incarcerated compared to white people.
“Our goal is to eliminate every racial disparity,” Griffin said.
Smart Justice advocates want the system to embrace a cash bond as a last resort and say the default should be release on a personal recognizance bond. They say that judges need to do more to really understand the people who appear before them and evaluate whether they are likely to show up for future court dates.
In Michigan, the main topics of the Smart Justice program are bail reform, sentencing guidelines and prosecutorial discretion.
“We’d like for prosecutors in Michigan to be on board for restorative techniques, restorative justice techniques that could lead to diversion instead of incarceration,” Griffin said.
The plan is to target prosecutors up for re-election in 2020 and make sure they are held accountable for the way they use their discretion and immense power in the judicial system.
The effort officially begins with a launch May 11.