By LINDSAY M. McCOY
Capital News Service
LANSING – Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a dramatic drop in local jail populations in Michigan, but state officials don’t expect that trend to last.
The number of people in local jails nationally dropped by 16% from 2019 to 2020, a decrease six times the average for the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
State officials said the statistics align more with the COVID-19 pandemic than with current crime rates.
Matt Saxton, the CEO of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said that there were on average 17,000 jail inmates per day in the state in 2019, dropping to approximately 7,000 per day since the start of COVID-19.
“The first year of COVID, officers were having less contact with people on the streets. There were less people driving on the roads, so fewer people are getting stopped for a speeding violation, less people are being arrested on outstanding warrants,” Saxton said.
One way the Marquette County Jail curbed its high inmate population during COVID-19 was by sending those suspected of committing crimes to the prosecutor’s office to be charged rather than lodging them in jail to await charges, according to the county’s jail administrator, Brian Steede.
Saxton said the crime rate is on the rise again in Michigan, as some of those defendants released without going to court have committed additional crimes.
“It is yet to be seen if, by the courts releasing people, was a good thing or a bad thing,” he said.
Although national jail admissions have declined, the average length of stay has been steadily increasing over the past decade, with a 6% increase from 2019 to 2020, according to Justice Department statistics.
The two main reasons for the longer stays were suspects with bail set at more than $5,000 and those held on more serious crimes, according to an analysis of the federal data by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit policy research organization.
Saxton said those facing lesser, nonviolent charges are moving in and out of custody more quickly.
“Misdemeanors are not staying in jail any longer, probably less time, than they did prior to COVID,” he said.
Saxton said the longer stays are caused by longer wait times for jury trials, as well as by violent offenders who aren’t eligible for bail.
Steede said the data appears to relate to the pandemic and the resulting slow-down in court processes.
Inmates with prolonged stays in Marquette County are those facing more severe charges and whom the courts didn’t want to risk being let out into the community, according to Steede.
“The people we have in our jail for the majority of 2020 and 2021 are ones that are a threat to the community, so they left them in jail,” he said.
A 2021 change in the law for bonds speeded up the release process for inmates, he said.
“You can’t keep someone in jail for lack of money. They now look at other factors, like if they’re a flight risk or a threat to the community,” Steede said.
Because of that quicker turnover, the Marquette County Jail has seen a dramatic decrease in inmates, going from an average of 123 per day in 2019 to approximately 63 in 2020, said Steede.
“We’ve pretty much cut our number in half.”
Steede said the lower population has lessened the costs of housing inmates, but any savings were spent on things like medical care due to COVID-19 and additional personal protective equipment for staff.
As COVID-19 slows down, Saxton said he imagines hail population numbers will look different in the years ahead due to rising crime rates.
“The stats are really misleading,” he said.