Whitmer, bipartisan officials, launch criminal justice reform taskforce

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs an executive order for a criminal justice reform taskforce, April 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday signed an executive order establishing a new taskforce aimed at taking a comprehensive look at criminal justice reform initiatives in Michigan.

The Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, which plans to first meet in the summer and conduct its research over the rest of the year, is being co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Bridget Mary McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

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Other key bipartisan officials helping launch the taskforce include state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering); Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake); Attorney General Dana Nessel; Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs Association; and Stephan Currie, executive director of the Michigan Association of Counties.

The full taskforce will consist of 21 members comprising various stakeholders from the state’s criminal justice system — including citizens impacted by it — and will be appointed by various officials, according to the order.

Saying that “all options are on the table,” Gilchrist and others associated with the taskforce seek to review jail and court data while expanding alternatives to sending people to jail and more broadly, “improve the effectiveness of the front end of Michigan’s justice system,” according to a statement.

The research is being funded by a $1 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C., which Whitmer said should cover the vast majority of the work. That grant funding will help to gather and analyze data from counties around the state related to Michigan’s jail populations while also helping to inform policy recommendations.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at a news conference on criminal justice reform, April 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

“In the final analysis we’re going to realize such incredible savings from this that offset any additional [minimal] costs that the state may have to bear,” Whitmer said during a news conference prior to signing the order at the state’s Hall of Justice in Lansing.

In Michigan, the population of people incarcerated “pre-trial,” — or before being convicted of a crime — more than tripled between 1978 and 2013, even with crime rates falling, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice reform advocacy organization based in Northampton, Mass.

Speaking with reporters following Whitmer’s signing, state Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), an advocate for criminal justice reform, estimated that the annual, statewide cost savings of keeping non-convicted people out of jail could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, based on the costs of incarcerating people.

Nationally, a report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that the cost of incarceration is $182 billion annually.

David LaGrand

“On any given day, half the people in our Michigan jails are un-sentenced,” said Koops with the Michigan Sheriff’s Association. “And that’s the norm. We have some that are higher than that. It costs the same to detain them as it does for people who have been found guilty.”

Crime in Michigan is now at a 50-year low, according to the state.

“We believe that we need to take a comprehensive look at the state of our criminal justice system in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “Because we know this: the status quo isn’t working. It’s not working for the accused and it’s certainly not working for those convicted of crimes.”

Earlier this week, the Michigan Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Detroit’s 36th District Court. The lawsuit challenges the court’s practice of cash bail, which can keep people in jail if they can’t afford to pay the bond.

ACLU Executive Director Dave Noble praised Whitmer’s order in a statement on Wednesday.

“This is welcome news given the ACLU’s long push for criminal justice reform, which includes an overhaul of the unconstitutional cash bail system that locks up far too many people who have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent,” Noble said.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack at a news conference on criminal justice reform, April 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

Various policies aimed at reforming the criminal justice system have been on the rise, both in Michigan and around the country.

Late last year, President Donald Trump — who campaigned as being tough on crime — signed the “First Step Act.” The bipartisan legislation significantly changes federal sentencing guidelines, a key policy priority for many advocates.

In Michigan, there is legislation to raise the age at which individuals can be charged as an adult for criminal offenses.

Both the state House and Senate have already cleared slightly different versions of bills reforming Michigan’s policy of civil asset forfeiture. Broadly, the legislation would require criminal convictions before law enforcement can seize property they believe to be connected to the crime.

LaGrand was a co-sponsor of the legislation, which also is a key priority for Chatfield.

Speaking at the news conference on Wednesday, Chatfield said that broad criminal justice reform makes for a personal issue because his father, a minister, had worked with incarcerated populations of people.

Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield
Lee Chatfield | Nick Manes photo

“As a young child, I saw firsthand the way that these individuals are treated and how the justice system works,” Chatfield said. “And since then, I’m happy to be joined in the Michigan House by Republicans and Democrats, alike, who see that our system is broken and it needs to be fixed.”

McCormack told the Advance that the taskforce will closely study the methods other states have employed to reform criminal justice policy, adding that the group wants Michigan to be viewed as a leader.

“I think we’re looking at all of them,” McCormack said. “That’s part of what we want to look at. But we all want to be better.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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