Flint, MI– The Genesee County Jail is on their 22nd consecutive day of being overcrowded, and only 4% of the jail’s population has been sentenced.
According to Captain Jason Gould from the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department, the inmate count on July 29 was 610. Only 25 of those people have sentences.
After about two weeks of dealing with overcrowding, the jail entered a state of emergency. Officials have since been working to bring the jail’s population down to 555 in accordance with the ‘Overcrowding Act.’
Gould said it is primarily the responsibility of the court to reduce the population, as the jail works on written court order. The courts can consider reducing sentences of those in jail, reducing bond amounts, and allowing inmates to be on the sheriff’s tether program. He said only a few people have been permitted to tether so far.
Until then, Gould said this situation poses multiple challenges for the jail.
“The challenges include finding room for everyone who is in the jail. Also, managing those inmates who are repeatedly upset by their cases being adjourned or delayed by current court processes,” he said. “They expect they can move their case forward, but frequently get delayed.”
Due to COVID-19, the courts have been dealing with a backlog of cases, causing delays in trials.
“A contributing factor with overcrowding is a very slow-moving court system,” Gould said. “For many months, the system was all but shut down due to the pandemic.”
In Genesee County, the circuit court was closed from the end of March 2020 until Sept. 15, 2020, and was temporarily closed again two weeks later after staff was potentially exposed to COVID-19. The courts were fully reopened to the public on June 28, 2021.
Since then, Assistant Prosecutor John Potbury said the Prosecutor’s Office has been “firing on all cylinders coming out of the pandemic.”
“We have had six jury trials going on in Circuit and Family Courts and we continue to conduct preliminary exams on a daily basis in District Court. We are processing cases on our end to see justice through for victims and our community,” Potbury said. “It is a major challenge but we are doing our part to see that cases are processed as expeditiously as possible in the best interests of justice.”
Last year, Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered jails to release inmates awaiting trial for non-violent crimes to reduce overcrowding in light of the pandemic, but even then the jail was very close to maximum capacity, with more than 90% of inmates awaiting trial.
Gould said there is a mix of people that have been at the jail since before the pandemic, and people who came in during. He said there are several inmates that have been awaiting trial in jail for up to six years.
This isn’t just happening in Genesee County.
In jails across the country, the majority of inmates are unsentenced and either cannot afford bail or weren’t given bail. When inmates can’t pay their bail to await trial outside of jail, they’re stuck inside. The jail population grows.
The Genesee County jail spends $32 per inmate per day. In one day, it costs $18,432 to house the 576 inmates who have not been convicted.
But some groups and organizations have been taking steps to reduce their jail populations, and reduce their costs.
A Jail Population Review Committee in Pima County, Arizona, found millions of dollars in savings in two years by modifying defendants’ release conditions, according to a report from the National Association of Counties about jail population review teams.
The committee was created to asses the status of inmates at the jail and identify safe release conditions. Over the course of two years, the program was able to release 1,200 individuals, resulting in 42,000 jail days reduced. At a cost of $127.20 per inmate per day, they were able to save about $5.3 million.
According to the report, a similar team was created in Lucas County, Ohio. By conducting weekly assessments of the pretrial population, the jail was able to cut their average daily jail population by 65.8%.
In Harris County, Texas, the jail changed bail practices for misdemeanors, allowing most misdemeanor defendants to be released from jail on no-cash bonds. Instead, the defendants promise to arrive at court, or they could have to pay later.
According to a report from an independent monitor of the new practices, the rate of recidivism did not increase with these bail reforms that increased the use of these “unsecured pretrial release.” Having misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial outside of jail did not result in a rise in new offenses, researchers found.
As such, the authors of the report wrote that if these findings continue, “more liberal release policies can be attained with potential reduction in the downstream cost of new criminal activity.” In other words, the jail could save money by releasing misdemeanor defendants, without creating a rise in criminal activity.
In 2019, the Michigan State Court Administrative Office partnered with the Crime and Justice Institute to explore pretrial release decisions and the use of pretrial risk assessment tools in five pilot courts, including the 67th District Court in Flint.
Specifically, the pilot study set out to assess the accuracy of a tool called the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) in determining how likely a defendant is to fail to appear in court, commit a new criminal offense, or commit a new violent criminal offense if released on bail.
The study ran into complications due to COVID-19, and results were ultimately deemed “inconclusive” regarding the effectiveness of the PSA tool. However, the study did produce data about how often defendants released on bail failed to appear, or reoffended.
According to the report, the rate at which released defendants failed to appear for court was 7.4%. The re-arrest rate for new criminal offenses for pilot court defendants released on bail was 16%, but the re-arrest rate for new violent criminal offenses for the defendants released on bail was only 2.4%.
That means 97.6% of all pilot court defendants released on bail did not commit a new violent offense while they were awaiting trial. Local government officials have occasionally attributed the rise in violent crime to the release of inmates awaiting trial during the pandemic, although the statistics in this report don’t seem to support that claim.
When courts don’t reduce bail or change release practices, there are many organizations throughout the country that are stepping in to help.
Michigan Liberation is one organization in the state that is doing this work. The group’s vision for a “liberated Michigan” includes the concept that no one should be incarcerated, fined, or punished until proven guilty. That means an end to cash bail, pretrial fines, and “fees that criminalize poverty,” according to their website.
The Bail Project is a national nonprofit organization that pays bail for people in need, and operates in 9 cities around the country, including Detroit.
According to their annual report for 2020, since 2018, The Bail Project has used $27.2 million to conduct over 11,775 bailouts. The report shows that $11.6 million of that amount has already been returned to the fund after people’s cases closed.
The Bail Project’s Press Manager Joseph Pate said that they have provided “free bail assistance to nearly 150 individuals in Detroit in the past year,” but did not know of similar work happening in Flint.
Captain Gould also did not have information about groups that post bonds for inmates here in Genesee County.