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Keli McIntosh

February 2, 2020

Michigan is recognized nationally for having one of the highest rates of incarceration, and the most severe sentencing policies. The Grand Traverse region has been known for its jail scandals, suicides, overzealous prosecutorial judgements and lengthy sentencing.

During the last decade, funding for Michigan’s mental health systems has been reduced by 85%. At the same time, funding for jails has increased to nearly two billion dollars, as the number of incarcerations has tripled. Alternatives to jail and services for victims of crime remain underfunded. At present, Michigan law provides little guidance as to when diversion programs should be used. Unfortunately, mental illness has become a crime as jails have taken the place of residential mental health facilities. Law enforcement has been forced to take over the care of the mentally ill.

In early 2019 the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration was appointed. This group was directed to analyze jail populations across the state and develop legislative recommendations. During the following months, several hearings were held around the state. Specialists spoke on related issues and members of the public shared stories of their involvement in the state’s legal system.

Though the penal system was established to protect the public from dangerous situations, research has shown that even short periods in jail can increase future criminal behavior. Over the past five years, courts across the country have found that those in jail were not getting meaningful due process and that poor people were being denied equal protection because of their inability to pay bond or legal fees.

Craig DeRoche, a member of the Task Force and a former Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives stated, “Incarceration is the most expensive and least effective tool in any government’s arsenal.”

The recent recommendations from the Task Force include:

Reclassify traffic offences not related to unsafe driving to minor misdemeanors.

Expand officer discretion to use ‘appearance tickets’ as an alternative to arrest.

Provide crisis response training for law enforcement and divert people with behavioral health needs from the legal system.

Strengthen the presumption of release on personal recognizance.

Ensure speedy trials.

Develop more alternatives to jail sentences.

Shorten probation and parole for most felonies.

Reduce financial barriers to compliance and determine ability to pay fines and fees.

Invest significant resources in victim services and strengthen protection practices.

Standardize criminal justice date collection and reporting.

Several bills to require these necessary changes will be introduced in Lansing in the upcoming months. Hopefully, following the recommendations of the Task Force will allow the Grand Traverse area to stand out as an example of a region that is willing to incentivize alternatives to jail.

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