New data shows that as nonviolent offenders are released from Michigan jails to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, crime rates are not increasing. The information could signal the beginning of prison reform. Photo via Shutterstock.
New data shows that as nonviolent offenders are released from Michigan jails to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, crime rates are not increasing. The information could signal the beginning of prison reform. Photo via Shutterstock.

Data shows that reducing jail populations to prevent the spread of coronavirus doesn’t increase crime.

MICHIGAN — The coronavirus outbreak has shed light on challenges with local infrastructure and global trade. But the pandemic is also giving Michigan lawmakers an opportunity for reform through good news.

Jail populations have fallen by half in Michigan since the coronavirus pandemic began without a spike in crime. 

“I’d say we’re pretty close to proof of theory,” State Court Administrator Tom Boyd, who served on the state’s Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, said in a Bridge Magazine report

The news is encouraging to prison and criminal justice reformers who say it’s possible to reduce incarceration without endangering public safety.

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The ’Gander previously reported on the conditions in Michigan’s jails that led to coronavirus infection in both inmates and jail staff. The Michigan Sheriffs’ Association said inmates were freed to reduce jail populations and the spread of the coronavirus.

Statewide, jail populations in mid-March fell from approximately 17,000 of 18,000 available beds to about 8,000 just six weeks later. Populations haven’t changed significantly since, said the Association’s executive director, Matt Saxton. 

The fact that that lower population has remained steady demonstrates that recidivism has not been a large issue throughout the state as a result of releasing prisoners during the pandemic.

Wayne, Genesee, and Ingham Counties reduced their jail populations by 40%, 25%, and 30%, respectively, according to data collected by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research group that seeks to reduce mass incarceration. 

Graphic by Desiree Tapia

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the National Guard offered coronavirus testing to inmates in each of the state’s 80 county jail systems. More than 20 facilities received tests in late May, and another 17 received testing kits to conduct their own tests.

But according to Saxton, just about seven facilities had found COVID-positive inmates by late April. That included several of the state’s largest county jail systems, like those in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Calhoun, and Genesee Counties. 

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Leadership in Agreement

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order allowing courts to release most jail inmates who don’t pose a risk to public safety two weeks after the pandemic hit the state. Michigan’s Supreme Court also directed local courts to determine who they could safely release and to be more conservative in deciding who to hold to await trial. 

“They all just took it very seriously,” said Bridget McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and co-chair of the jail task force. “Jails and prisons are among the hottest infection spots across the country. It’s really hard to keep people socially distanced.”

The preliminary data available shows that prison reform is possible in Michigan. State Republican leadership is also on board.

“This is a textbook example of how we can identify a problem and work to specify what the problem is and what the options are so we can make progress,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).

As President Donald Trump hopes to reclaim the White House for four more years, he’s yet to publicly mention plans for prison or criminal justice reform. However, presumptive Democratic nominee Vice President Joe Biden has dedicated plans to see change in the country’s justice system.

Biden’s plans include treatment instead of incarceration for drug addicts, eliminating unfair sentencing, and using social workers in place of punishment where appropriate. If elected, and if successful, he would be the first U.S. president to see decreased prison populations during his term.

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