Lower penalties for traffic cases could cut jail population, report says

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Major changes in the Michigan justice system, including lower penalties for some traffic violations, could be implemented under new recommendations from a state task force looking at jail populations.

The report by the  Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration focused on expanding alternatives to jail for defendants who can be safely managed in the community and reducing jail admissions, length of stay and associated costs.

According to the report, driving without a license is the third most-common offense among the top 10 leading to jail admissions.

To cut down on such cases, the task force recommended ending the suspension or revocation of licenses for actions unrelated to safe driving. In addition, it called for reclassifying most traffic offenses and other minor misdemeanors as civil infractions.

“For three years I took court-appointed cases. It was not unusual to have in one day as many as a dozen driving while license suspended or invalid driver’s license [cases,]” said Takura Nyamfukudza, a Meridian Township defense attorney and member of the task force.

Alongside the other proposed changes, the task force recommended allowing police officers to issue more appearance tickets rather than arresting and jailing suspected offenders. 

“If law enforcement doesn’t have to spend time waiting for people to be booked, if they are issuing an appearance ticket instead of taking someone to jail for certain offenses, that saves a lot of time and gives them more time to deal with more serious crimes that involve more danger to people in the community,” said Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen, another task force member.

The report also suggested reducing the use of bench warrants for failure to appear in court or to pay court fines, fees or child support. 

In place of arrest warrants for such infractions, the task force suggested alternatives including prohibiting arrests for a first-time failure to appear in court for civil citations, traffic cases and child support.

Nyamfukudza said, “If we reduce the number of offenses that a police officer can take someone to the county [jail] for, that means there will be room for the people that we are actually scared of.”

Providing police with more options and reducing the severity of some crimes would help the public and lower jail admissions, task force members said.

Talen said, “While there will hopefully be some savings for county and state government, I think the longer-term benefit is going to the people that live here.”

“People won’t lose jobs because their driver’s license was suspended because they weren’t paying child support. When a parent loses a job because of something like that, it has a huge impact on the kids, which then has an impact for their entire lives,” Talen said. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, voiced their commitment to reviewing the policy recommendations in the report.

 “We have made significant progress in reforming our criminal justice system in recent years, but there is much more we can do to protect the rights, freedoms and safety of every single Michigan resident,” Chatfield said.

“The House will review every one of these recommendations and begin work immediately to help protect the people of our state and give them the local and state government they deserve,” he said.

The report was a joint effort of the task force, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the State Court Administrative Office. It is available at https://courts.michigan.gov/News-Events/Pages/DataDrivenJusticeSolutions.aspx

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