Macomb County faces persistent overcrowding at its jail, but it really doesn’t have to be that way.
That’s according to an outside study completed late last year, but presented publicly to county commissioners for the first time on Thursday.
The study was set in motion in 2014, as the county was increasingly forced to release jail inmates early in a series of “emergency” overcrowding situations. Since then, the county has come under more intense scrutiny with the revelation of a series of deaths in custody there.
The study’s goal was to “assess future jail capacity needs in the context of a broad system assessment.”
What resulted was a sometimes-scathing top-to-bottom critique of the county’s criminal justice system: One that jails far too many people for far too long, most for relatively minor offenses, and often because they can’t afford to pay fines or “extraordinarily high average bail bonds.”
That happens as the county struggles with “terrible” addiction and mental health issues, forcing many vulnerable inmates into an “antiquated,” overcrowded facility that’s poorly-equipped to serve them.
The study, which runs more than 150 pages, makes a number of findings. Key among them:
Overcrowding reflects “a local justice system with built-in delays to swift felony case processing.”
“The extent to which local justice system inefficiency and lack of coordination [between courts and jurisdictions] negatively impact the jail cannot be overstated,” the report’s authors wrote.
- The local justice system “has settled into a ‘habit’ in which many cases are simply pled to the original charge; and this lack of challenge is compounded by an extremely low trial rate... The danger is formulaic justice in which due process is compromised.”
- 77% of Macomb County’s jail beds are occupied by defendants awaiting trial, a percentage the study calls “astoundingly high.”
Demands "reveal the terrible costs of local problems with drug addiction and those individuals who come into contact with the law enforcement and corrections system."
- An analysis of most inmates booked at the jail from July 2014-June 2015 showed that “an astounding 25% had previously been hospitalized for a mental health episode.”
- During the same period, 43% of “defendants booked into the Macomb County Jail … have as their most serious charge a narcotics offense.”
- “Jail overcrowding also highlights shortfalls in in-custody treatment and the lack of jail re-entry services through the repeat cycling of inmates who repeatedly fail after release,” the report noted.
The jail also has been impacted by an "over-reliance by the courts on fines and the imposition of ‘pay-or-stay’ sentences," along with low-risk inmates who stay in jail simply because they can't afford bond.
- Many Macomb courts have settled into a “habit in which many cases are simply pled to the original charge; and this lack of challenge is compounded by an extremely low trial rate…. The danger is formulaic justice in which due process is compromised.”
- There is an “over-reliance on jail as a disposition for non-violent misdemeanor offenses.”
The Macomb County jail itself contributes to overcrowding
“This antiquated facility was not designed to support successful offender outcomes.”
The report also makes a number of recommendations.
Jim Robertson, a longtime criminal justice consultant and main author, told county commissioners he would focus on two to curb overcrowding: establishing a central booking and processing facility for everyone entering jail; and “full pre-trial services” that include access to public defenders at every stage of the court process (including arraignment), and a “risk assessment tool” that prioritizes inmates based on their threat to public safety, and also screens for substance abuse, mental health issues, and indigency.
Robertson said that tool should be used to decide who’s sent to jail in the first place, and who’s released under what circumstances. “So it’s not just whether or not the person can afford to make bond, it’s ‘What is the risk to themselves and to the community?’” he said.
Robertson added that this inevitably involves adding more staff, and facility upgrades. “There is no zero-cost option,” he said, warning that if the county does nothing, “you could need 750 more [jail] beds than if you implement some changes at this phase, and begin to manage the jail population.”
Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, who supported the study initiated by Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and commissioners, told commissioners he also supports its findings and recommendations.
Wickersham said he would return to commissioner when he had more information about “hard costs,” and ask for their support as well as identified funding sources,” which could include new bond or millage proposals.
Wickersham admitted getting buy-in of everyone needed for such an overhaul — including local police, county judges and even the state — could be challenging, but given the urgency of the situation, he thinks it can be done.
“Fifteen years ago, this never would have been talked about,” Wickerhsam said. “I’m not going to force any agency or any community to participate in this, but again this is the right direction to go. This is the way we should be looking to go into the future.”