LANSING – What if we used data to drive decision making in state government rather than the seemingly endless cycle of political rhetoric that has acted as a barrier to progress and innovation?
It may seem like a silly question for those of us who use data every day to make our decisions as engineers, computer scientists, and technology enthusiasts, but it was a question that our administration took seriously as we sought a new way to solve the problems that have plagued our state for decades.
One of the problems we knew could benefit from insights gleaned from rigorous data analysis was our ballooning and costly county jail system. With the limited data that existed on our jails, we knew that the number of people held in our county jails has nearly tripled in less than 40 years, but Michiganders weren’t committing more crime. In fact, crime rates are currently at a 50-year low, and the reasons for Michigan’s surge in local incarceration have not been entirely clear.
The explosive increase in Michigan’s jail population went largely unnoticed by state lawmakers because we didn’t have the data to answer basic questions: Who is in jail? How long are they in jail? Why are they in jail?
In April, Governor Whitmer signed an executive order to create the Michigan Jail and Pretrial Incarceration Task Force, in conjunction with The Pew Charitable Trusts and State Court Administrative Office, to find answers to these questions and deliver recommendations for reform.
I spent my first year as lieutenant governor leading this task force alongside my co-chair, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, and 19 other experts. Together, we took the deepest dive into our jails in the history of our state, examining 10 years of arrest and court data gathered from more than 600 law enforcement agencies and 200 district and circuit courts from across the state.
Here’s what we found:
Who is in jail? The average daily population in Michigan’s jails was 16,600 in 2016 — approximately half of the population had been convicted of a crime, while the other half was awaiting trial. Men outnumbered women nearly six to one in Michigan jails across the state, but the female jail population is growing at a much faster rate. Younger people in their 20s were more likely to be incarcerated. Black men made up just six percent of the county population but accounted for a disproportionate 29 percent of all jail admissions. And 23 percent of people entering our jails had a serious mental illness.
How long are they in jail? Between 2016 and 2018, average jail stays were 45 days for felony offenses and 11 days for misdemeanor offenses.
Why are they in jail? Traffic offenses accounted for half of all criminal court cases in 2018 and driving without a valid license was the third most common reason people went to jail in Michigan.
Now that we have clear data and information about the state of Michigan’s jail and pretrial system, we can begin to take a more thoughtful approach to ensure our policies meet the needs of all who come into contact with that system.
Our bipartisan task force used this data to develop 18 policy recommendations to improve our system of criminal justice. The taskforce was able to reach a consensus from members of both parties and all three branches of government. This first of its kind report was delivered to the Legislature on January 10, 2020, and I’m ready to work with the Legislature to codify them into law.
As engineers, computer scientists, and technology enthusiasts, we know that data has the ability to enable greater opportunity and possibility. We see it in the innovative ideas and products that people produce every day, but now we can begin to use this data to produce innovative policies within state government.
When we use data to drive policy decisions, we can provide people with a much healthier chance of success here in Michigan.
To view a video interview with Lt. Gov. Gilchrist, click on https://youtu.be/rvX5ysXavLc
Garlin Gilchrist II is the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Michigan.