TRAVERSE CITY — Hope of a better approach spurred local prosecutors, police and attorneys — and slews of peers from across the state — to Kirkbride Hall Friday afternoon.
The sunlit venue, once part of the now-decommissioned state psychiatric hospital, hosted the latest gathering of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration. The newly formed bipartisan coalition explores blights on the state’s criminal justice system, including gaps in accommodating inmates with mental illness and statewide underfunding, overcrowding and understaffing, through testimony from experts and the informed public.
It’s much needed — Michigan’s jail populations have tripled in the last 50 years despite plunging crime rates, Bridge Magazine reported last month.
“This’ll affect all sheriff’s offices across the state,” said Newaygo County Sheriff’s Department Jail Lt. Jonathon Borgman, one of many who traveled for a seat in the hall. “It’s interesting stuff.”
Friday’s discussion centered more on keeping intake numbers down — and the value in keeping pretrial incarceration as low as possible.
“It deprives them of their rights, it makes it difficult for them to assist in their own defense,” said 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power, who made an appearance alongside 86th District Court judges Bob Cooney and Michael Stepka. “Remember — they’re innocent until proven guilty. So you’ve locked up somebody who is, at least hypothetically, innocent.”
Defendants jailed before trial are more likely to plead guilty, be convicted and net a longer sentence than those who aren’t, according to Jennifer Copp, a crime and incarceration-focused assistant professor and researcher at Florida State University.
She was one of three experts to speak Friday.
Defendants sentenced to jail time were more likely to commit future crimes than those assigned to probation, Copp added — it comes with the territory when cutting at-risk populations off from the workforce, their families and community support systems.
“What’s important to me is trying to find alternatives and evidence-based alternatives to incarceration,” Cooney said during testimony. “About 90 percent of the folks I’m dealing with — or maybe more than that — have a substance abuse disorder, and the crimes associated with them usually have something to do with drugs or alcohol.”
Grand Traverse County’s courts, Power told the panel during public testimony, do what they can to buck statewide trends.
He used his brief testimony to tout a comparison between county population numbers and jail beds through the decades. The data, which Power said comes from jail officials, shows hefty population spikes from 1990s 64,273 to an estimated 92,573 in 2018, according to census projections. Yet alongside those numbers come consistent jail crowds — 171 in 1990 down to 141 on Aug. 20 of this year, with in-trend ups and downs in the years between.
It doesn’t mean there’s no work to be done, said Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg — especially for patients with questionable mental health.
A lack of such support has been a recurring issue in the process locally, she said.
“We have people in our jail who can’t be out on their own — it’s not safe for them, it’s not safe for the public,” Moeggenberg said. “So they sit in jail for 10 months waiting to get mental health treatment.”
She has worked with judges and community members to establish pretrial diversion options for defendants with mental illness, but lacking staff and funding poses significant roadblocks, she said.
Goodwill Street Outreach Coordinator Ryan Hannon, who works closely with area homeless shelters, echoed the difficulties homeless and mentally ill defendants have re-entering society after incarceration.
“This is something that intersects with mental health services all the way around,” he said. “Our court system and our jail works with us and tries as best they can.”
Jail and sheriff’s department officials from several counties — including Grand Traverse, Antrim, Kalkaska, Alpena and Newaygo — peppered the audience. Dozens took to the stand for testimony as well, including Traverse City Police Chief Jeff O’Brien and local community corrections and jail officials.
No shortage of controversy has centered on Grand Traverse County’s jail in recent years — two suicides and a slew of attempts drew criticism to the jail and earlier this year, settlement offers from county coffers. One of those settlements is still in the works — county officials on Thursday denied a Record-Eagle Freedom of Information Act request for a pending offer in the matter.
Former Jail Administrator Todd Ritter also resigned this spring amid reports he’d had intimate relationships with former inmates, among other inappropriate conduct.
Friday marked the task force’s second of six meetings, which will take place in different venues across the state.
The dozen-plus-member coalition, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, was formed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with the goal of rehabilitating the state’s ailing jails. Members will spend 2019 touring the state and hearing from court and jail officials before bringing forth legislative recommendations — and hopefully, a new formula for Michigan’s jails — in 2020.
The task force’s next meeting comes Sept. 20 in Grand Rapids.
Learn more at www.courts.michigan.gov.