Representatives from Kent County are part of a task force seeking to reform the state’s criminal justice system.
Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen and Kent County Road Commissioner Robert VerHeulen were selected to be a part of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, a 19-member unit co-chaired by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II. Members include legislators, attorneys, prosecutors, commissioners, community corrections officials and victim advocates.
The task force was formed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to review the state’s jail and court data in an effort to expand alternatives to jail, safely reduce jail admissions and length of stay, and improve the effectiveness of the front end of Michigan’s justice system. The task force will be assisted with data collection, among other things, by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Earlier this year, Whitmer said the number of people in local jails has tripled in the last 35 years, but crimes in the state are at the lowest levels they have been in the last 50 years.
According to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department’s Jail Base, some of those who are incarcerated are in for less than a year due to DUIs, drug offenses, traffic violations, and burglary and fraud, among other crimes.
Each year, there are approximately 26,000 bookings and the daily average number of inmates is 1,300 in Kent County, according to the Jail Exchange for Kent County Jail & Correctional Facility Family & Friends Information. The Kent County Prosecutor’s Office said it has about 5,000 convictions per year.
“I think close to 60% of people who are in jail are only there temporarily because they have been accused but they have not stood trial yet,” Talen said. “They are waiting for trial and what we know, of those folks, most of them cannot make cash bail. So, if you are wealthy and have the money, you can stay out of jail. But if you are poor, you are going to stay in jail.”
One of the concerns Talen said he has are inmates who have medical conditions. He said inmates who are not convicted but cannot make bail are not eligible for Medicaid. However, he said, those who can bail themselves out of jail can still use their Medicaid benefits.
“It is horrible,” Talen said. “It is an incredible injustice. It is counterproductive to not have health care while you are in jail and it is not fair. It is unjust to differentiate that way, just because you have the ability to make bail. (As a result), the jail is responsible for providing medical care, but practically speaking, that means if you had a physician who prescribed a specialty drug that you are taking for mental illness or any physical conditions, once you get to jail, they are going to find the cheapest way to get you through your time in jail. So, they will prescribe a generic drug. If you are being treated for depression, it takes an awfully longtime to find the right medication that works for a particular individual and if they just give you something generic it just messes you up. It is so counterproductive, and it ends up being expensive for the community.”
Talen, who has been a county commissioner for 19 years, said he recognizes how many people are in jail either because they are poor or a minority and are suffering from some sort of medical illness or substance abuse disorder.
“Those folks account for at least a third of the people who are in jail and they shouldn’t be there,” he said. “If you are mentally ill, you should be somewhere getting treatment, not in jail. That has become painfully evident to me, and what I have recognized as I work in these different segments of our community is how our (sectors) of work — all of which are doing great work — aren’t talking to each other, aren’t cross-pollinating. So, we don’t have good data across those systems such as the courts, the sheriff’s office, the mental health system, the health system and the hospital, often where people are taken with a substance abuse disorder. All those are things where we don’t have an umbrella collaboration … that is, looking at the system as a whole and tracking those data.”
According to the Michigan Department of Treasury, taxpayers in Michigan spent $478 million on county jail and corrections costs in 2017. The justice system was the third-largest statewide county expenditure, behind health and welfare and public works, at $2.05 billion.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said this task force will be beneficial as members look for ways to work smarter while keeping people in custody who need to be in jail and releasing people who should be released. He said he hopes the task force will be able to provide more guidelines and a framework for accomplishing that.
“Kent County has already been doing a good job of that, but we can always improve,” he said.