Michigan has an incarceration problem — a structural flaw in how a system designed to protect and punish has evolved during the past six decades.

The facts couldn’t be much more clear — they’re the same set of weaknesses pinpointed for years by many who work within Michigan’s court, law enforcement, social service and penal systems. But they’re much more concisely outlined in a final report produced by the bipartisan Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

Among a laundry list of recommendations released by the study group last week were several reforms that would fundamentally shift how we think about and treat people who come into contact with our judicial system.

The panel, aided by analysts from the Pew Charitable Trusts, gathered both data and testimony from people with a stake in the system’s operation statewide. It was a bit of a cumbersome task since Michigan has little uniformity in its county-by-county jail structure. In fact, the data on who is jailed, for what offenses, and for how long, had to be gathered from individual jail operators because Michigan has no central reporting authority maintaining such information.

That lack of data makes it extraordinarily hard for both lawmakers and those within the system to make thoughtful decisions about what works and what doesn’t.

Still, the taskforce arrived at a number of conclusions we believe deserve meaningful action by those who write the rules.

The group found many Michiganders are getting locked up for low-level offenses, including many for driving with suspended licenses. And many of those who are ensnared on such infractions lost their licenses to offenses that have nothing to do with safe driving. Think about it, suspending someone’s license for back child support isn’t going to help that person get to work and make those payments.

The taskforce also pinpointed the glut of people with mental illness who are funneled into our local jails on offenses that in many circumstances could be linked to their illness. Several experts point out the malfunction in our state’s behavioral health and judicial systems that have made our jails effectively placed jail in the position of a first-line treatment option for many people in the throes of mental health crisis. And anyone who has seen the inside of a jail knows it’s the last place we should place anyone for treatment of a mental illness.

There is no doubt law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges all are in a difficult position — forced to follow laws they know sometimes make social woes worse for many of our neighbors. They also have the unenviable task of ensuring a system designed to provide community protection and punishment works properly.

Yet, all of us, whether working in the system, or watching from the outside, probably could agree something isn’t working in our state.

Our neighbors shouldn’t land in jail because they can’t afford to pay fines. And those suffering from mental illness deserve medical attention, not incarceration.

We believe Michigan can do better, must do better.

And the taskforce and its report is a bright start to a process that likely will not end for years to come.

Editor's note: This editorial was updated 1/21/20 to correct the body responsible for research cited in this article to Pew Charitable Trusts. 

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