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Five takeaways from Wayne County Jail's new data drop

Background image from the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives Of Labor And Urban Affairs
Wayne State University

Wayne County Jail, the largest county jail system in Michigan, is working to make its data on incarcerated people more transparent.

A dashboard, started at the end of 2018 under the late Sheriff Benny Napoleon, launched earlier this month, detailing bookings, jail populations, releases, and more. It will be updated daily.

"This is the first phase of this project in that it gives the public a global perspective of who's in our jail," Wayne County jails chief Robert Dunlap said. "We believe that this project will not only help us make better informed decisions ... but also other justice stakeholders, like the courts, can also look and see how the jail is being utilized, and who's here, how long, and hopefully make better decisions about the process on their end."

The data also offers a look into how people with minor charges move through the system. When he started his job, Dunlap said he noticed many of the people in jail were on misdemeanor or economic charges, like not being able to pay their driving tickets. Looking at data that spanned a decade, he saw that "the county was spending an average of about $10 million a year incarcerating people who were arrested and charged with misdemeanors."

Dunlap and the jail presented these conclusions at a conference, eventually leading to a collaboration with the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network and the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Their work developed into the dashboard years later.

"This is about using data to identify where there are gaps in the system that ultimately impacts the individuals in the system and that they may get missed on things that would help them avoid recidivating in back to the system," Dunlap said.

For some organizers, the transparency is long overdue.

Angel McKissic is the founder of the Metro Detroit Restorative Justice Network. McKissic said in the past, she relied on the scarce outside resources for insight into the jail’s data.

“Transparency is the bare minimum," she said. "Especially given, like, how much money we fund (the jails.)"

"We're way behind so many other municipalities across the country who have a very robust reporting in terms of personal data," said McKissic

Here are some key graphs from the Wayne County Jail's update as of Wednesday.

1. The highest number of people who have been housed in Wayne County Jails at the same time this year has been 1,481

Other facts about the jail population:

  • Beds are full. In fact, only about 34 beds are left — and those are designated for women. The jail's dashboard does not show the total number of beds in the system, but it's at least 1,500.
  • A majority of people in the jails were booked with felony charges.
  • More than a quarter are people under 25 years old.
  • 91% of the jail population is men.
  • Black people are overrepresented: 76% of the population in Wayne County jails is Black, but only 38% of the county's general population, according to a 2021 estimate.

2. Hundreds of people have been in jail for more than a year

The average length for people in jail is 271 days. The average length of stay of people on tether — which includes tracking systems like ankle monitors — is 316 days.

Jails aren't made for long-term stays, and a huge majority of the people in jail and on tether are pre-trial, meaning they are innocent in the eyes of the law.

Length of stay has been increased by the pandemic: The shutdowns of courts, has led to a major backlog in cases and hearings.

Dunlap said that hurts inmates. "The bottom line — that is a long time to be in the jail," he said. "It puts extra work also on the jail staff, because one of the things that has been proven over and over again, those people with mental health issues generally stay in the jail significantly longer than those without and they require additional services."

Michigan Radio published an investigation on pre-trial detentions earlier this year, reaching out to at least 120 people who have been held in the jail for longer than 18 months. Many of these people were held throughout the pandemic, with people inside criticizing the jail for what they said was inadequate care, problems with sanitation, and lack of supplies.

“It's stressful, just like my mind is, like, racing constantly. I'm worried about my case,” said one man who was arrested in October 2019 and was still in jail in February 2022 for a serious charge. He was not able to pay the $75,000 bond.

McKissic, with the Restorative Justice Network, said prior to the dashboard's publication, she only had a report from the Vera Institute to go off of. But it was "immensely illuminating" to see the ramifications of cash bail in the long average length of stay numbers.

"Locking someone up because they can't pay a bond, for example, which was happening before, means that someone loses their job," she said. "They might lose custody of their kids. They're extracted from their communities and whatever role they played in that. And there's so many ripple effects to that."

According to an analysis by ACLU of Michigan, judges in Detroit were requiring bail in 85% of arraignments — even when charges were relatively minor. Judges worked with the ACLU to address the issue, including an agreement to consider non-monetary options like probation.

3. More than a quarter are receiving mental health services

People receiving mental health services in jail — what the jail system calls "mental health consumers" — make up more than 25% of the Wayne County jail population. There are 120 beds designated for mental health consumers, the dashboard shows.

The share of women receiving services is about 13 percentage points higher than the men's.

McKissic is also a trained psychotherapist and said local jails and prison serve a particular function — punishing people for breaking the law.

"There's nothing rehabilitative or healing about this place because they're not meant to be," she said. "I know that they're not branded as mental health providers, but because of the ... lack of an investment in mental health infrastructure in Detroit particularly, means that there's nowhere for people to go."

"Also, that means that the only the first line of contact with folks who are having a mental health crisis is usually police," McKissic said.

She said she thinks the distribution of government funding — skewed heavily toward the criminal justice system at the expense of mental health services — doesn't match the needs of the population. "Maybe if we could get some of that jail money, some of that policing money, we could actually build places that have low barriers to access, that are free."

Dunlap said it is common to hear how jails across America, including in Wayne County, are becoming treatment facilities for people with mental health issues. But he said he is not trained as an expert.

"It is something that requires treatment. And jail is not the proper place for the proper treatment that's required for those individuals," he said. "Ultimately, we would like to see more (treatment) done where it should be done."

4. Bookings have gone down during the pandemic

5. There is no data on recidivism rates yet

McKissic said some communities already feel the deep impact of the jail system, and the data helps support what people in those communities say they experience.

"Over and over again with groups of young people in Detroit, everyone has a connection to someone who is locked up currently or some time recently. So again, when we see the number of people who are locked up and how long they've been there, we're living that reality," said McKissic.

"We're trying to make alternative pathways, so that folks who want to be accountable have an opportunity to do so in a non punitive way. These kind of numbers are relevant for us too, because we're thinking about how many of those people, especially for nonviolent crime, who are are locked up, could benefit."

The dashboard can be found on SheriffConnect.com

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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