TRAVERSE CITY — It took nearly a century, but the American Civil Liberties Union has “discovered” northern Michigan.
“We, for so long, have been ignored by the ACLU but that’s not the case any longer,” said Anna Dituri, local organizer for the nonprofit’s reform-oriented Smart Justice Campaign.
“And we are watching, I will say that.”
The ACLU, founded by social workers in 1920, has had a longtime presence litigating class action and constitutional cases in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.
Its goal here, and throughout the state, Dituri said, is to eliminate racism in the criminal justice system and cut incarceration rates in half by 2022.
At least one lawmaker has noticed the ACLU’s arrival.
Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, said he has met with Dituri and ACLU staffers and plans to introduce legislation aimed at reducing recidivism by habitual offenders.
“I met with them several times, I met with my local prosecutor here, and we’re pretty close,” VanderWall said earlier this month. “It’s a good package of bills. It’s sentencing reform that will keep people out of prison who shouldn’t be there.”
VanderWall expected the new legislation to be introduced in the senate as early as the first week of December. It would put a time limit on how long prosecutors could use prior convictions when sentencing for new crimes.
“Otherwise a person could be released from prison, and make one mistake — say a car accident — and be sentenced as a habitual offender,” VanderWall said.
Dituri has been bringing the ACLU’s reform message to groups large and small, from conversations in private living rooms to being a guest speaker at public events. She spoke at the Before During and After Incarceration forum in October, and on Nov. 11 addressed the Grand Traverse Humanists at their monthly meeting.
Humanism is a philosophy guided by reason and science; and that people can live ethical, fulfilling lives without relying on what adherents call “supernatural” – aka religious – thinking.
Humanists groups are sometimes known for their interest in social justice issues, which is what brought Dituri to their monthly meeting, she said.
“Bond is supposed to be personalized and individualized but that’s not how it works,” Dituri told the Humanists. “Sixty-five to 70 percent of the people sitting in jail are innocent, and are only in there because they are given a bond they cannot post. A bond they cannot afford.”
When asked about sourcing for those statistics, Dituri referenced the “Social Justice Blueprint,” an ACLU document available online that gathered data from a variety of sources, none exclusive to northern Michigan.
The blueprint states there were 15,328 people in the state’s county jails in 2015, 54 percent of whom were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of a crime.
When asked about Dituri’s 65 to 70 percent figure, or the blueprint’s 54 percent figure, Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley worked with Sgt. Brian Newcomb to compile local jail data.
Bensley said he compiled numbers of pre-trial defendants who had not posted bond for Friday, Sept. 20, Monday, Oct. 2 and Friday, Nov. 22.
- On Sept. 20, there were 151 inmates at the jail, 10 of whom were pre-trial nonviolent offenders and 8 of those were in jail for failing to comply with the condition of their original bond. Meaning, they’d bonded out, been accused of violating their bonds and were back in jail. The charging data was not available.
- On Oct. 7, there were 145 inmates at the jail, 19 of whom were pre-trial and had not posted bond. Of that 19, six had been accused of violating bond by either testing positive for cocaine or meth, indecent exposure, operating while under the influence, domestic violence or criminal sexual conduct. Other pre-trial charges for the remaining 13 included assault/strangulation, felony hit and run, armed robbery, unlawful imprisonment, assault on a corrections officer and murder.
- On Nov. 22, there were 139 inmates at the jail, 6 of whom had just been booked and didn’t yet have a bond assigned, 18 of whom were pre-trial and had not posted bond. Of that 18, 4 were possession or sale of meth and/or heroin, 3 were criminal sexual conduct, 2 were operating while intoxicated — third or fourth offense — 2 failure to stop at a motor vehicle accident causing death, 1 unlawfully driving away, 1 assault and 1 assault with intent to commit murder, 1 homicide, 1 third offense domestic violence, 1 driving without a license.
The Sheriff’s Department’s record-keeping software makes it labor intensive to compile overall figures, Bensley said, and he has periodically requested IT upgrades.
His one-day figures do not jibe with Dituri’s estimates of pre-trial numbers, and reveal instead a preponderance of people in the jail had at one time been bonded out but violated, often for the same crime that put them in jail in the first place.
Dituri is a Traverse City native, who attended Traverse City Central High School, studied social justice and psychology at Grand Valley State University and worked as a court reporter in Antrim and Grand Traverse counties.
The ACLU launched its Smart Justice Campaign in 2016, though the initiative didn’t make its way to the region until this year.