MI ‘behind’ in push to release inmates before trial

Reform advocates argue jails are't built to hold everyone whose case is pending

File - A look inside a jail cell at the Kent County Correctional Facility.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — You might be tempted to say “lock ‘em up” when it comes to people charged with serious crimes — but bail reform advocates say county jails aren’t built to house every single person awaiting trial, even on felony-level crimes.

“That’s not what our jail is for,” Tim Bouwhuis, the Pretrial Services supervisor for Kent County’s court system, told Target 8. “Our jail is for high-risk individuals, it’s for sentenced offenders, and we really need to look at who’s in jail on bond.”

A Target 8 analysis of Kent County jail records showed that on average, 37 percent of inmates at the correctional facility are awaiting trial. The other inmates are serving sentences. A majority of jail inmates are locked up for offenses that are considered nonviolent.

Statewide, roughly half of Michigan’s 20,0000 or so jail beds are filled with people waiting for their day in court.

For more than two months in 2016, 18-year-old Angel Pierce took up one of those beds. He had been arrested for dealing crack in Grand Rapids.

“People are wasting away in there,” Pierce said of the Kent County Correctional Facility. “Literally, it does do something to you mentally. You’re just trapped. No connection to the outside or anything.”

HOW KENT COUNTY DECIDES WHO’S A DANGER

Even as Pierce sat in jail, Kent County’s Pretrial Services office was advocating for his release pending trial.

“We do identify people we think should be released from jail,” said Bouwhuis, the Pretrial Services supervisor.

Kent County started using an “evidence-based risk assessment” tool in 2012 to calculate if a defendant poses a public safety or flight risk.

Twenty of Michigan’s 83 counties are using research-proven assessments to varying degrees. In West Michigan, the counties that assess pretrial risk includes Kent, Ottawa, Kalamazoo and Muskegon.

Pretrial investigators assess defendants’ risk levels based on a set of predetermined factors, including:

  • Charge type,
  • Released pending trial (Defendant already facing charges at time of arrest),
  • Criminal history (At least one misdemeanor and one felony as adult),
  • History of failure to appear in court  (Two or more),
  • History of violent convictions (Two or more),
  • Length at current residence  (lived at current address less than a year),
  • Employed, primary caregiver, student, or retired,
  • And history of drug abuse.

If defendants score low or medium risk, Pretrial Services can recommend that the judge release them without requiring them to post cash. It’s called a personal recognizance bond and it often comes with conditions, like the inmate must wear a tether, check in routinely with Pretrial Services or undergo regular drug testing.

“We’re focusing our efforts on the risk assessment tool that is evidence-based,” Bouwhuis said. “How a judge or magistrate sets a bond is entirely up to the judge or magistrate.”

PRETRIAL SERVICES: “INCONSISTENCIES ACROSS THE BOARD” IN SETTING BOND

Judges maintain discretion when setting bonds, just like they do when determining sentences.

“There are definitely inconsistencies across the board when it comes to setting of the bond,” Bouwhuis said.

Target 8 sat down with judges from Wyoming District Court and the 63rd District Court in Grand Rapids Township.

“You are going to find a wide variety of bond setting,” said Judge Sara Smolenski of 63rd District Court. “You’ll get some where the bonds are much lower and you’ll get some where the bonds are much higher, and for similar cases.”

Wyoming District Court Judge Steven Timmers acknowledged bail practices vary from court to court.

“It should be as uniform as we can make it within the confines of the system, which is difficult to do because we’ve got different people running different courts with different viewpoints, so you’re going to have some variation,” Timmers told Target 8.

Tim Bouwhuis of Pretrial Services tracks how often Kent County’s 16 district court judges follow his office’s recommendations. So far in 2017, for cases in which Pretrial Services suggested release on a personal recognizance (PR) bond, meaning a defendant does not have to post money to get out of jail, judges followed the bail recommendation 53 percent of the time. But that’s an average. Individual judges vary widely on how often they agree with Pretrial’s assessment.

Bouwhuis said the rates at which judges follow recommendations range from 8 percent of cases on the low end to 95 percent on the high end, though he would not say where specific judges could be found on that spectrum.

“I’d say the majority of cases where I disagree with (Pretrial Services) and don’t go along with their recommendations, I feel more concern for the safety of the public,” Smolenski said.

Timmers agreed that public safety weighs very heavily when making bond decisions.

“The fact of the matter is, I don’t want somebody out there saying Judge Timmers, or any other judge in the county, let a violent offender out only to do it again,” Timmers said.

Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker pointed to an example regarding a 14-year-old boy who was arrested in the recent Cabela’s gun heist. Target 8 confirmed that the teen posted $150 to get out of juvenile detention, after which he allegedly stole a car and more guns.

“These are kids who have just been arrested,” Becker remarked. “Didn’t faze them. They’re out committing more offenses.”

STATE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: TIME TO RECONSIDER “OLD HABITS”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack heads up a work group studying the potential for bail reform in Michigan.

“I think there are some places (in Michigan) where there are old habits that are ready to be looked at,” she told Target 8. “What we have been told by stakeholders is that there are communities where there are just norms or habits about cash bail being set across the board in every kind of case without determinations about whether they will come back to court, is or is not a safety risk and whether they can afford to pay the amount of bail that’s set.”

McCormack created the informal work group after Gov. Rick Snyder called on counties to consider engaging in “smart pretrial reform” using “proven risk assessment tools.” She also attended a White House forum convened to address the “economic inefficiency of fines, fees and bail and their disproportionate impact on the poor.”

As Michigan explores the potential for bail reform, several states across the country have already moved away from the use of financial bail.

BILL: MONEY BAIL “INEFFECTIVE” IN PROTECTING PUBLIC SAFETY

Nationally, there’s a bipartisan bill (PDF) in Congress that would encourage the elimination of money bail by offering grants to states that engage in reform.

The bill calls money bail “ineffective” at protecting public safety, citing research that showed nearly half of high-risk defendants were allowed to return to the community simply because they could afford to pay money bail.

Other studies have shown that for low-risk people, pretrial detention makes it more likely they’ll commit new crimes after being stuck in jail, unable to post bond.

“We might, as taxpayers, rather have them continue to go to their job and pay their child support and pay their rent and be a productive member of our economy,” Justice McCormack said.

The Pretrial Safety and Integrity Act of 2017 also quotes the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a pioneer in the field of front-end criminal justice research and reform.

According the foundation, “compared to individuals released within 24 hours of arrest, low-risk defendants held 2 – 3 days were 17 percent more likely to commit another crime within two years. Detention periods of 4 – 7 days yielded a 35 percent increase in re-offense rates.”

SHERIFF’S ASSOCIATION: PRETRIAL INMATES TAKING UP JAIL BEDS ‘SERIOUS CONCERN’

Officially, the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association holds a “neutral” position on the issue of a bail reform, according to Executive Director Blaine Koops, who previously served at sheriff for Allegan County.

While Koops said bail reform is something the judiciary needs to work through, he also said the issue of pretrial inmates taking up jail beds is a “very serious concern” for sheriffs.

“Typically, non-sentenced individuals are not eligible for programs such as inmate worker programs, life skills programs, GED and so forth,” Koops wrote in an email to Target 8. “So, much of the unsentenced time is unproductive for rehabilitation and returning the individual back into the community a better person than when they came in.”

AMERICAN BAIL COALITION: MI HAS LOW-LEVEL PRETRIAL INCARCERATION

Meanwhile, the bail bonds industry pointed out that Gov. Snyder’s Criminal Justice Commission recommended only that state lawmakers “collect further data on the bail system in Michigan and look at whether the statutory factors for the setting of bail make sense or require some adjustment.”

“The Commission did not recommend anything approaching some sort of a complete overhaul of the system, or to ban all monetary conditions of bail and go the way of New Jersey, or Washington, D.C.,” wrote Jeffrey J. Clayton, Executive Director of the American Bail Coalition.

“Michigan does not detain misdemeanor defendants simply due to their inability to post bail.  The affordability of bail is but one factor in Michigan and elsewhere for judges to decide whether bail is “excessive,” which is the constitutional right to be free from excessive bail being imposed on a defendant.  If a defendant does not post bail, that does not automatically mean that he is being detained solely due to financial resources.  In fact, Michigan is one of thirteen states that have a low level of pretrial incarceration—less than 10% of all of those charged with a crime will be detained pending trial.  In fact, Judges in Michigan release people on their own recognizance (a simple promise to appear), unless they think the risk of failing to appear requires some security to guarantee appearance,” Clayton wrote.

Despite a prior weapons-related charge on his juvenile record, Angel Pierce scored low risk on the pretrial risk assessment. Even so, a district court judge ordered him held on a $10,000 cash/surety bond, meaning he would have to post $1,000 through a bondsman to get out of jail.

Two months later, when Pierce’s case moved on to circuit court, Kent County Pretrial Services advocated for Pierce’s release on a personal recognizance bond pending trial. The circuit court judge agreed.

Pierce was subsequently released from jail, after which he complied with all bond conditions and showed up for his court appearances as the case wound its way through the system to completion.