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Flint, MI–Ramon Pool has been in the Genesee County Jail for two and a half years, and has yet to go to trial.
“The fact that I’ve been sitting in here for so long, people think I’m guilty,” he said. “But my voice hasn’t been heard.”
Pool, 25, is not the exception. He’s part of the “new normal.”
Of the 543 inmates in the jail, only 40 of them have been fully sentenced. The other 503 are awaiting trial, or only have partial sentences.
In jails across the country, the majority of inmates are unsentenced and either cannot afford bail or weren’t given bail. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer to this issue, with the closures of courts for safety purposes.
In Genesee County, the circuit court was closed from the end of March until Sept. 15, and was temporarily closed again two weeks later after staff was potentially exposed to COVID-19.
This means inmates that were in jail awaiting trial have had to wait even longer.
“It’s absolutely a problem,” said Captain Jason Gould of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office. “If you think about the people that are in jail, they expect to go to court. But it gets adjourned, they get another court date, it gets adjourned, another court date, it gets dismissed, they have to reissue a warrant, and they never leave jail.”
Gould said this leaves inmates feeling frustrated.
“They’re human beings. I would get frustrated too, I’m frustrated for them,” he said. “I’m not an advocate for anybody that breaks the law, but it seems to be that we have more and more cases like Larry Clemons.”
Clemons was in the Genesee County Jail for almost five years, accused of a homicide he didn’t commit. When he finally went to trial in January 2020, he was found not guilty.
Gould said that the system already moves slow, and with the added layer of a pandemic, he would “guess if someone came in today, they wouldn’t be in trial before January.”
“There are five or six court dates before you even get to talk about trial,” he said. “Each one can be adjourned, delayed, or rescheduled.”
For Pool, a number of things have delayed him from going to trial.
Pool was arrested in 2018, and said his attorney was also working on the case of the Flint water crisis, which tied him up.
He said his first court dates were adjourned because the prosecutor was not present, and then the judge assigned to his case retired.
Pool got assigned to a new judge, but then she stepped down because she was business partners with Pool’s attorney.
He got assigned to a new judge and was given a trial date of Nov. 18, but due to COVID-19, he’s not sure if that date will stick.
Pool said he’s been making the most of his situation–reading, writing, and participating in the educational I.G.N.I.T.E. program for inmates. He’s been developing a life plan to continue his education and start his career when he gets out, and says he wants to succeed more than he wants to breathe.
“You have to get to a point where you can adapt to your environment, but not become your environment,” he said.
But it hasn’t been easy.
Pool was supposed to be the best man for his best friend’s wedding, and now he has to write his speech from jail and have someone else read it for him.
He expects to miss his mother graduate with her second master’s degree in January, and the birth of his niece in February.
“It gets to the point where you wanna quit, you know, life’s moving on without me, but I just gotta keep moving forward,” Pool said. “But it’s really hard for them.”
The jail spends $32 per inmate per day. In one day, it costs $16,096 to house the 503 inmates who have not been convicted. At that rate, the jail will have spent $1 million in two months on inmates who haven’t either haven’t gone to trial or haven’t been fully sentenced.
Pursuant to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s orders, the jail has released inmates awaiting trial for non-violent crimes to reduce overcrowding, but they are still very close to maximum capacity, as the jail has 580 beds.
Pool said inmates that have been awaiting trial for a long time know the courts are getting more cases everyday, and feel like their old cases are rotting.
He said some inmates feel the waiting is purposeful, like they’re being “put on ice” until they decide to take whatever offer they can get and not go to trial.
Prosecutor David Leyton said there are many reasons for delays.
In the six months that the courts were closed due to COVID-19, he said they should have had 20-30 jury trials completed. When the courts briefly reopened, there was only one court room that could be used. They completed two trials before they were suspended again.
Leyton said potential jurors were reluctant to come in because of the pandemic and most of his own staff has been working from home. He said defense lawyers have also had difficulty meeting with their clients in jail for the same reasons.
“All these problems are coming together causing further backups than what we already had,” Leyton said.
Even without the pandemic, Leyton said there can be delays on the defense side, as well as delays with the state police crime labs. His office is also short staffed, and just received a budget cut of half a million dollars.
“We have a Prosecutor Center for Excellence report that found we are a dozen prosecutors short on the criminal side,” he said. “Add it all up, things slow down.”
But the crime doesn’t slow down.
Leyton said his office might be the busiest office in America. He said they review almost 4,000 felony warrants a year, and issue more than 3,000.
“That doesn’t include misdemeanors, paternity cases, or other work representing abused and neglected children,” he said. “And because of Flint and some of the surrounding suburbs, we have a lot of violent crime which are the most complicated and most time consuming cases for the prosecutors to work on.”
The solution, according to Leyton, is about being proactive.
“If we’re gonna solve problem of crime, it’s sociological. What I do is reactive, we need to be proactive,” he said. “It takes job opportunities, education, young kids being taught right from wrong.”
Until then, Pool said he hopes people would try putting themselves in his shoes.
“You should be considered innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “A lot of people outside these walls don’t know the difference.”