Report: Misdemeanors burdening MI criminal justice system

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Despite a 22% drop in arrests statewide in the past decade, tens of thousands of people are still being jailed for nonviolent offenses like failure to appear in court, possessing marijuana and shoplifting, a new report concludes.

The Pew Charitable Trusts presented its report in Grand Rapids Friday to the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, a bi-partisan group created by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for criminal justice reform.

ARRESTING MORE, TICKETING LESS

Comparing data from 2008 through 2018, researchers found officers are arresting people more for offenses they would have ticketed them for in previous years, and arrests far outnumber citations, even for low-level crimes.

Four West Michigan counties are among the 21 counties where arrest rates rose: Muskegon, Newaygo, Calhoun and Oceana counties.

>>PDF: Michigan jail trends report

Researchers also took a sample of jail data from 2016 through 2018 provided by sheriff’s offices in 20 counties, including Allegan, Branch, Mason, Oceana, Muskegon and Kent counties. They found that while admissions dropped about 1.5% over the past three years, rural counties had the highest admission rates and suburban counties had the lowest.

WHO IS BEING JAILED

While black men only made up 6% of the population in the 20 counties analyzed, they accounted for 26% of the jail population. On the other end of the spectrum, white women made up 41% of the population but only 15% of jail admissions.

“We just have to realize that racism still exists, and the data here is indicative of that,” said Democratic Rep. Tenisha Yancey of Grosse Pointe, who’s a member of the task force.

The number of women arrested is rising, particularly black women. Pew Charitable Trusts found that while roughly three out of four people arrested are men, the proportion of female arrests rose 3% between 2008 and 2018. When comparing arrest rates of white and black people, they found black women were the only group with an increasing arrest rate.

Additionally, court data showed a higher ratio of female defendants in criminal cases — 1 in 3 criminal cases last year involved female defendants.

Among white women, the most common serious charges leading to their arrest were operating under the influence, theft and possessing or using a controlled substance. For black women, theft topped the list, followed by driving without a valid license and assault.

For white men, the most common serious charge leading to their arrest was operating while under the influence, followed by assault. For black men, the top reason was driving without a valid license followed by assault.

The data showed a dramatic decline of 46% in arrests of people age 25 or younger, while arrests of people older than 50 rose by 38%. Jail admissions also reflected a drop in younger inmates and an uptick in older ones.

However, researchers found most people who ended up in court were age 35 or younger.

WHY THEY’RE BEING ARRESTED

Jail data from 20 counties taken from 2017 to 2019 by sheriff’s offices showed that misdemeanor offenses are the biggest burden on the system, accounting for 61% of jail admissions. Data also showed many people were jailed for nonviolent offenses including violating probation or parole, possessing or using a controlled substance and obstruction of justice.

Researchers found the most common charges for arrest all declined over the past decade, including failure to appear in court, possessing marijuana and operating while under the influence, although they all remained the top reasons someone was arrested.

Researchers also found 86% of all cases filed in district court last year involved misdemeanor offenses. Discounting cases that were bound over, inactive, remanded or transferred or changed, the task force found the majority of cases ended with a guilty plea, but 44% of district court cases were dismissed.

“I was surprised at the number of people that are in jail for what are nonviolent, non-drug or alcohol related offenses,” said State Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridgette McCormack, who co-chairs the task force along with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II.

“There are still a lot of things that people are either arrested for or locked up for at the county level that frankly are not that significant of dangers to public safety,” said Gilchrist.

“Things like driving without a license – that you could be in jail for a month or more for that – that was pretty surprising to see the rate at which that happens,” he added.

Five percent of those booked for driving without a valid license stayed in jail for more than a month; 17% of those jailed for retail theft stayed longer than a month.

“It’s affecting families,” said Yancey, who recalled a story shared about the impact of one man’s incarceration.

“He was the breadwinner of the house, so the entire family was evicted during the time he was in jail because he had no means to provide for his family — for a low-level, nonviolent offense,” she added.

One of the task force members has pushed for reform from inside the system as well as out.

Monica Jahner spent 28 years in a Michigan prison after she was convicted of conspiring to murder her stepmother, who ultimately survived.

“(I want to) reduce mass incarceration by 50% by the year 2030. That’s my real goal here,” said Jahner. “We’re trying to figure out how we can make the (criminal justice system) better and keep our community safe and let more people out of prison or jail.”

BACK BEHIND BARS

Data also showed 35% of people jailed had been there at least one other time from 2016 through 2018.

The report indicated that although 45% of people jailed stayed a day or less, the average stay was 22 days, driven up by the smaller share of people who stay longer than 6 months.

Those who stayed longer typically were jailed for more serious felony crimes, according to researchers.

FORUM EXPLAINED

The forum, which is open to the public, runs until 4 p.m. at Grand Rapids Community College’s Student Community Center. The public is invited to provide testimony from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The task force that heard the report is a bipartisan, interbranch effort to drive criminal justice reform. Its members include judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, county commissioners, community corrections, prisoner and victim advocates.

The group’s directive is to examine factors affecting jail populations and make recommendations to reduce incarceration trends, promote public safety and safeguard civil rights.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Know something newsworthy? Report It!